Tuesday, May 30, 2017

You will be my witnesses

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

Sunday, May 14, 2017

"Look," he said

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