Sunday, April 30, 2017

Then their eyes were opened

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

Sunday, April 23, 2017

When the doors were locked

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

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Roll back the stone

Scripture Lessons: Psalm 114 and Matthew 28: 1-10 Sermon Title: Roll back the stone Preached on April 16, 2017 Today is the most important day of the Christian Calendar because today we celebrate Christ’s victory over death, but today also brings with it one of the most challenging claims Christianity makes. Namely, that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Not everybody believes that. Old time preachers used to have this expression – cafeteria Christians – folks who treat their faith the same way they treat the line at Bucky’s saying: “yes, I’ll have a little bit of grace and charity. I’d like a big piece of love your neighbor as yourself, but I’ll stay away from any of the radical stuff. And I just don’t have the stomach for anything that doesn’t make rational sense. I have a supernatural intolerance you see.” That’s what some people do. They only take what they can handle. These are good, rational people who read through the Gospels and see that Christ was a wise teacher worthy of admiration, but they can’t seem to take that step to believe that he rose from the dead. Thomas Jefferson was a cafeteria Christian. He was known to have admired Christ and his teachings, and so he took his Bible and his scissors and he left in the teachings of Christ he most admired, literally cut out the parts of the story he couldn’t believe and made for himself what today is known as the Jefferson Bible – a version which of course leaves out the resurrection. Not everyone believes in a bodily resurrection. Not everyone believes in it today, not everyone did back in 1776, and even on Easter morning 2,000 years ago, not everyone believed that Jesus would rise from the dead. Certainly, the disciples didn’t. You can tell from how our Second Scripture Lesson began, that the disciples did not believe he would rise from the dead on that Easter morning nearly 2,000 years ago and we know that they didn’t because they’re nowhere near the tomb, they’re nowhere near anything having to do with Jesus at this point, because they’re sure he’s just been killed by the Romans and that any one of them could be next. It’s only these two brave women who go to the tomb. And do you know why they went? They went, not to greet a resurrected Lord, but to anoint a dead body for burial. Now why would that be? Why would those who followed him and listened to him and knew him by name -these men who left their boats and their families to go fish for people -these disciples whom he told: “I will die, but will rise again” – why would they not have been waiting right outside his tomb on the 3rd day to greet their resurrected Lord? Why? For the same reason that these Marys go to the tomb not to greet a living savior but to anoint a dead body – it’s because they, like so many of us, hold the power of God captive by our own rational minds, our own meager expectations, and our own understanding of what is possible and what isn’t. We get so good at thinking we know what can’t be done and what God can’t do, that we fail to take God at his word. So how is it that Thomas Jefferson had faith enough to believe that 13 threadbare colonies could defeat the British Empire but wouldn’t believe that God could raise a man from the dead? It’s because we all reduce God down to our own understanding of what’s possible. Doing so might seem rational, but it’s foolish. It’s faithless too. So why do I keep doing it? At the suggestion of my friend Lee Maddox, last Sunday I encouraged all of you to invite someone to come here with you this Easter morning – but I never thought you’d do it. We just don’t have enough Baptists for something like that. Presbyterians don’t do that… or so I thought until I walked in this sanctuary. It seems that today – this Easter – I must learn the same lesson again: that I must not limit the power of God according to my own rational mind, my own meager expectation, my own understanding of what God can do and what God cannot. We can’t be so bold to believe that we know! And especially we can’t be so bold to believe that he can’t do what he said he would. The angel told the two Marys: “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.” Too often we are these women. All we hope for is to anoint a body for burial. All we hope for is to get through another day. All we hope for is scraping by, accepting our lot, getting used to the pain. Sometimes it seems we are like a small child, afraid to look at her knee after the band-aid has been pulled away though the wound has healed. We stopped hoping long ago, and got used to being hurt. Or we gave up on happiness and learned to sleep in the bed we’d made. And then we stood at the tomb and said good-bye, too meek to believe that the words he said might actually be true. But see – God, as God always does, gives to his children, not the greatest gift that they can imagine, but the gift that he promised us which is so glorious that we wouldn’t dare imagine it. Roll away the stone and see what God has done. Roll away the stone to see that you – even you are loved and forgiven. Roll away the stone to see the new life you never thought you’d have. Roll away the stone to see that this everlasting life is real and that you can have it today just as he said. Roll away the stone to see – that he is risen. He is risen indeed. Amen.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Who is this?

Scripture Lessons: Psalm 118: 1-2 and 19-29, Matthew 21: 1-11 Sermon Title: Who is this? Preached on 4/9/17 I love a parade. According to the Daily Herald, last Saturday for Mule Day, 100,000 people watched as over 600 horses and mules marched up West 7th Street for the Mule Day Parade. This was our family’s 7th Mule Day, and the event has lost none of its charm. But, a parade is an interesting thing. People do things in big groups that they wouldn’t normally do. People don’t normally ride cows but last Saturday someone did. Doctors, judges, teachers, lawyers, preachers – don’t normally wear overalls like Bob Duncan, but on Mule Day they do. And parents don’t usually fork over $8.00 so that their children can buy annoying plastic horns for them to blow incessantly, so Andrew Hickman did that for them last Saturday, and now his name is anathema throughout our neighborhood. People do strange things in a parade, things that they wouldn’t normally do – because people, most people, are swayed by crowds. There’s something about the energy of a great big crowd that’s intoxicating. In a parade, you might find yourself cheering and caring about some issue that you wouldn’t normally give a second thought to. You might find yourself celebrating a person you don’t really even know that much about. It’s possible that in the atmosphere of a parade, you’d find yourself waving palm branches and shouting Hosanna and only as an afterthought you’d ask, “Now who is this guy?” “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is this one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven! When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee,” but did they really know? Did any of them really know who this man was. I ask the question because knowing someone in the context of a parade is one thing. Knowing someone’s name as it is chanted is one thing. But really knowing who this Jesus is – that’s another thing completely, because in a matter of days we’ll remember the crowd that will again surround him chanting, but this time they’ll be chanting: “Crucify him!” I love a parade, but people do strange things in a parade; most people are swayed by a crowd. That’s been the case with me any number of times. Along with my friend Matt Campbell I’ve been teaching our church’s Confirmation Class, where middle school students are learning what it means to be a member of First Presbyterian Church. As a seminary trained pastor, I suppose I’m qualified to teach this class, but when I was a Confirmation Student myself, I spent a good number of class meetings, not inside the church listening to the teacher, but behind the church building, loitering by the railroad tracks. My parents would drop me off, and on my way into the church for Confirmation Class I’d inevitably be persuaded to join the crowd. That’s not to say I didn’t learn anything during my time in Confirmation, for even though I was not officially in the class hearing what the teacher had to say, this experience taught me a lesson I’ll always remember that most people, me included, are swayed by the crowd, and so while Jesus rode into Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday long ago, with the whole city in turmoil asking, “Who is this?” I don’t believe that any of them really knew. Who is this? If you wave palms one day. If you are shouting hosannas to the Son of David on Palm Sunday, but are shouting for his crucifixion on Good Friday – then you don’t really know. If you let him wash your feet one day – but betray him the next as Judas did, then you don’t really know who he is either. If you eat at his table for the Last Supper as Peter did, but you deny him three times before the cock crows, then you don’t really know who this man is. Who is this? they asked – and this is a question that I believe only Jesus really knows, because we are swayed by crowds. We may sing his praises one day, but we humans may well betray him the next. How quickly we are corrupted. How quickly the idealistic lawyer becomes jaded by the system. How quickly the young politician becomes another cog in the wheel of bureaucracy. How quickly the motivated student is corrupted by apathy – because there are so few of us who know who we are so well that our sense of self is secure regardless of who we are surrounded by. You know the expressions – “lay down with dogs and wind up with fleas”. Or, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by me”. But this Jesus – this Jesus we remember today rode into a crowd that he knew would turn on him and yet he rode on anyway – knowing exactly where he was going and knowing exactly who he was. Who is this? That’s what Jerusalem asked – and there were some who wanted him to be their King – a great soldier who would lead them in their fight against the Romans, but rather than mount a war horse Jesus stayed on his donkey. Then there were others who, all they wanted, all they would ask, is for him to calm down. The Romans feared a revolt and if this Jesus would simply calm the crowds around him, if he would simply deny who he was, then they would gladly welcome another conquered subject into their city – but rather than bow to Rome, Jesus rode on. Now the miracle in this is plain enough – because being whoever they want you to be is easy – being who you are, that’s harder. James K. Polk’s parents lived right next door, and as a college student he’d return home, go up to sleep in a room with his old wagon in the corner. Come down for breakfast and the servants pour him a bowl of Captain Crunch. “I don’t like that stuff anymore,” he says. “I prefer eggs and bacon now.” “Oh really?” they say. And then they whisper, “Look who goes off to college and ends up too big for his britches.” (Tom Price of the Polk home has not authorized this account, but it was something like that.) Then he heads to Washington DC and in DC there are new boxes that people try to put him into. “Vote with us,” they say, “and if you’re not with us than you’re against us.” This is a harsh climate to live in, but that’s what it’s like. That’s what it’s like in Washington DC, that’s what it was like in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago and that’s what it’s like for you too. Everyone is wondering, “Who is this?” And somedays they’ll like you and they’ll cheer because they’re happy with who you seem to be. Other days they’ll curse you because you’ve disappointed them. Sometimes they’ll say to you: “Who is this?” and you’ll be tempted to say, “I’m whoever you want me to be.” Do you remember that TV show the Bachelor? It might still be on – when Sara and I were first married she’d watch it and I’d sit on the couch next to her pretending not to watch it. The format of the show isn’t a very good model for dating if you’re a woman, because there were like 25 of them for this one guy to choose from. Maybe the show was a pretty good model for dating if you were him, but if you were one of the women then you were tempted to resort to desperate measures, mainly – don’t be yourself. Be who you think he wants you to be. The most dramatic example was this woman who was in a conversation with the bachelor himself, and he asked, “so, what’s your favorite chain restaurant?” and she could have said Ruby Tuesdays, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Bucky’s – but instead she says: “I don’t know, what’s your favorite?” and it was at this moment that Sara threw the remote control at the TV. She didn’t actually – but I do remember her not wanting to watch the show anymore after that, so I said, “Maybe we could just watch it till the next commercial break.” “Who is this?” They asked Peter, and knowing that being himself was going to cost him something, he denied who he was three times. “Who is this?” They asked Judas too, and for a price he betrayed a man who he loved and followed. “Who is this?” That’s what they asked Jesus – and knowing just how much being himself was going to cost – rather than gain his life and lose himself he rode that donkey onward. People do strange things in a parade, some people lose themselves in the crowd – but not our savior, and it doesn’t have to be you either. Follow him with me. Amen.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Who says?

Scripture Lessons: John 11: 1-45 and Ezekiel 37: 1-14 Sermon Title: Who says? Preached on April 2, 2017 I was in New York City once. I had the chance to work in a great big building where counterfeit clothing was processed and cleaned, then distributed to homeless people. I introduced myself to the man who was supervising the project and told him my name and that I was from Georgia, and he said, “Yea, I can tell.” I didn’t think that I had an accent at that time, but I guess I did, and the thing about an accent is that people will judge you by the sound of the words coming out of your mouth. But they’ll judge you by the words too. One of our girls told us that someone she knew said the “s-word” in school, which made us nervous, until she whispered it: “stupid.” That is a prohibited word in our house. In our house, we don’t say stupid, shut-up, dumb, duh, I don’t care, and ain’t. I’m sure that you have (or had) a similar list of banned words, and some words must be banned. We must watch our language, not only because the words that we use can reflect upon us badly, but it’s also true that the words that we use shape the way we interreact with the world. The best example of a word that shapes the way we interact with the world is the word “can’t.” “Can’t” is a powerful word and we see its power. Two sisters were playing together, or they were trying to play together, but big sister was pretending to be a doctor and she wanted little sister to be a patient. However, little sister wanted to be a police officer. “She can’t be a police officer,” big sister says, “because girls can’t be police officers.” “Can’t” is a powerful word – that’s not to say that it should be banned from use, but like all powerful words it should be used thoughtfully, because unlike those throw away words that people use so often that they have no meaning (“awesome” is mine) – “can’t” is a word that draws a line. It puts people in place. It limits the world. A popular phrase inspired by Biblical thought is: “Words create worlds.” This is a reiterated theme of Scripture. You know the creation account that begins the book of Genesis: God said, “let there be light, and there was light.” God said, “let the waters be gathered together, let the earth put forth vegetation. God said, “let us make humankind in our image.” Ours is a religion where God spoke the world into existence – a religion where Jesus uses the powerful words, “Lazarus, come out,” and though he had been dead, out he comes. And so naturally, Ezekiel doesn’t put the bones back together with his hands – no – he speaks to them and the Spirit of God restores them to life. Some of our words are creative, restorative as well. A word of encouragement to a child, you’ve seen what that can do. “I think you can do it,” the teacher says and all at once he can. Those words are a creative force. They’re so important, especially in a world of “can’t-s.” “Can’t” is different from “no,” I believe, because “no” makes you powerful and can’t makes you weak. One who can say “no” has a choice, but those who hear the word “can’t” – their power to choose has just been taken away. It’s like the prayer that begins the Bible Study, where it’s one thing if the leader asks to see if anyone would like to give the opening prayer (everyone relishes their right to say “no” in that situation), but it’s something different entirely when girls can’t pray when in a classroom with boys. “Can’t” is a powerful word. That doesn’t mean it should be banned, because there are things in this world that we can’t do and for good reason, but what about the “can’t” laws of our world and how they dehumanize. Girls can’t be police officers is one thing, and women can’t vote is another. People with dark skin can’t go to school with those who have light skin. “You can’t.” People hear that every day. Our children hear that every day, and “Who says you can’t?” we must be bold to ask if we are to help our children grow, and learn, and live. Back to our Scripture passage from the book of Ezekiel – do you know how tempted he must have been to say, “These bones can’t live.” But “can’t” is a word that we should never be so bold to use with God, and we must be slow to use this word with each other too. And that’s why Ruby Bridges is an example to us today. It’s because while the world was telling her, “kids with dark skin can’t go to school with kids with light skin” she walked right into that white school. There’s a plaque in our own McDowell School, it’s right there in the front office listing all the firsts that took place there. It reads: McDowell School, the oldest continuously-operating school in the county, was originally built in 1883 on Trotwood Avenue just south of the southern-most railway overpass. The county supplied the lumber and the parents built the small building. It had the first lady Principal, Mrs. Jesse Tomlinson. The first county PTA was organized there in 1904. The school had the first elementary school library organized in 1964 by Mrs. Hazel Martin. The first black teacher was Mrs. Sally Sisson and the first black student was Rose Ogilvie (McClain) in 1965. Think of all the “can’t-s” this plaque defies: “Parents can’t build a school,” I can imagine myself saying, but I shouldn’t be so bold because they did. “Ladies can’t be principals,” the world and the school board and everyone else was probably saying, but, “Who says they can’t?” asked Mrs. Jesse Tomlinson, and she did. Then there’s this notion of how “Black teachers can’t teach white students and black students can’t go to school with white students either.” The world said that so many times that most people believed it was a fact, but right up this road Mrs. Sally Sisson and Rose Ogilvie McClain got tired of can’t and showed us all that when the world says “can’t” just watch what God can do. Can’t. Can’t is a word that tries to take power away, but faithful people are powerful because the word of our God defies every unjust “can’t” that this world would dare speak. Listen to this. Not only did what I just read happen at McDowell, but back a few years ago, our own Tom Patton was in fourth grade and he donned the white helmet and sash of the safety patrol. Those giant coke trucks would be carrying earth and phosphate up and down West 7th to and from the factories, and those scared little 1st graders would say, “I can’t cross that road.” Well, all 70 pounds of Tom Patton would walk out into the road, raise his right hand and those great monsters of industry would grind to a stop. “Who says you can’t?” We use the word “can’t” too liberally I tell you, and we must be bold to remember -whenever we are tempted to give up hope – whenever we are tempted to give up on marriage, work, our dreams, ourselves – that our God is the one who spoke the world into existence, who breathed on a pile of dried up bones and gave them life – our God is the one who called into a tomb, “Lazarus, come out” and out he came! While every “can’t” makes this world a little bit smaller, every time we say as Ezekiel said: “O Lord God, you know” we open ourselves up to God’s power, and we should not be surprised when God does exactly what the world told us “can’t” happen. Remember that the Lord said to Ezekiel, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely,’ [But] thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.” Amen.