Sunday, August 13, 2017

Beautiful are the Feet

Scripture Lessons: 1 Kings 19: 9-18 and Romans 10: 5-15 Sermon Title: “How Beautiful are the Feet” Preached on 8/13/17 This has been a big week for me at the Church office – I emptied my last box. I am fully moved in – you are stuck with me. As I unpacked my last box I remember what my friend James Fleming said back in Columbia. He was there as I was packing my books into the boxes I had picked up at the liquor store and he said, “I’m not here to say goodbye because it won’t be long before they send you back up here, showing up looking like you have a serious drinking problem.” James is a wise man, and he was worried about how I might be perceived, which is something that we all are worried about or ought to be worried about, because as we go through life people take a good look at us. They see how we choose to present ourselves, the boxes we chose to pack up our books in, and begin making assumptions. I’m not sure how one would define the word assumption, but I do know that assumptions are important, and while they’re not always accurate, they’re accurate enough of the time that they should be taken seriously. For example – if a restaurant has been given a failing score by the Health Department you don’t need to investigate further to determine the quality of the food, but, if a person has tattoos on her arms or a cigarette hanging from her lips, one might make a completely inaccurate assumption about the quality of her heart. Let me give you an example – I was once driving through Chattanooga on the way to Columbia, TN from a funeral in Stone Mountain. I waited too long to stop for gas so I had to pull off the interstate on an undesirable exit. It was dark, the gas station was not well lit, I noticed a creaky old Buick parked by the convenience store, motor still running. Wondering why someone would leave the motor running in this part of town, I jumped out of the car quickly, hustled to the pump only to realize that I had left my wallet in the car. I had changed out of my suit and into shorts before starting back, and as I was leaning over the driver’s seat to reach my wallet I heard the Buick shift into gear and then a raspy woman’s voice began shouting: “Young man! Young man!” I hoped she wasn’t talking to me, but she was, and I was thankful I didn’t have any cash because by the sound of her voice I knew that I would have given her all of it if she would just leave me alone. I cautiously turned around and the lady says, “Young man! You sure have nice legs.” With that she drove off. Assumptions. Based on my assumptions alone I had prepared myself for a conversation much less pleasant than that one, and that’s how assumptions are – they’re important because sometimes they’re right. But other times they’ll keep you from interactions that bring joy to creepy old gas stations and can sometimes stop meaningful relationships before they even begin. We must be careful about assumptions. Sometimes, what’s required is more research, more data, more investigation. Consider Elijah. Just before the events of our 1st Scripture Lesson take place: “He asked that he might die [saying]: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” That’s a state of hopelessness based on an assumption. Based on his observations he was a failure, abandoned by God. He battled King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, fighting for reform in a time of belligerent governance. He remained faithful in a time when idolatry was convenient. He spoke out in truth in a time when no one wanted to hear the truth, which is the kind of thing that will wear you out after a while. So, having hit a wall, having sunk down into a state of fear for his own life, he surrendered, abandoned his mission, vacated his position, Elijah ran away. You know what this is like. It’s in times of unemployment, infertility, cancer treatment – those dark nights where we knock and knock and knock on a door that no one ever answers. When we pour our days and our nights into the pursuit of something important only to be left empty that we make the assumption that the world would be better off had we never tried. But into his dark night, a voice spoke: “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord; for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind. Then there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. What you need to know about the wind, the earthquake, and the fire is that the Lord had revealed himself in these three ways to the Israelites more than once. From the time of Moses, who knew God in the burning bush and the great pillar of fire, Elijah knew to look for God in the fire. Likewise, Scripture tells us that in the time of the Judges God spoke through earthquakes and wind, so Elijah knew to look and listen for God in earthquakes and wind. But this time – this time the Lord was in neither the fire, the earthquake, nor the wind. This time God came to Elijah in the sound of sheer silence, which is not the place anyone would have assumed that God would be. “When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here Elijah?” Not preaching the truth in Israel, but hiding out in a cave, what are you doing here? Not standing for what is right at the palace, but huddled in the dark, what are you doing here? Not expecting to find me at work in the world, but assuming I had abandoned you and your people, what are you doing here? I know where “here” is. Don’t you? I wasn’t in a cave. For me it was on a subway train in New York City. For a week one summer during college I was able to attend a type of mission trip in New York. We spent our time feeding the homeless in all different types of shelters and soup kitchens. This was the first time my eyes had really been opened to just how many people are living their life without even a roof over the heads, and what hurt my heart the most was how little anyone could do anything about it. All these shelters. All these soup kitchens. All these agencies, but once you’re living on the street without a phone or an address you almost can’t get a job because you can’t be contacted for an interview. It’s just so overwhelming how hard it actually is to get back on your feet once you’re down. All these people, living their lives from one day to the next, and where was God? That’s what I was thinking about sitting on this subway train. I must have looked depressed and the man across the aisle he says, “So what’s going on?” “Nothing is going on,” I say because that’s how I felt. Nothing is getting better. Everything is getting worse. There’s no help, there’s nothing worth doing. I think I’ll just huddle up in the subway train without so much as lifting a prayer to the heavens. I’m done. Then the subway train came to a stop, the man stood up. “Make it happen” he says to me. “Make it happen.” It wasn’t an earthquake or a fire. This wasn’t a blowing wind that swept me up. Just a man on a subway who changed my whole life. That voice dashed my assumptions, and opened my eyes. It happened to Elijah that way. Hope was lost. He was lost, but God tracked him down and asked: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets by the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.” Did you hear that – I alone am left. That’s quite an assumption, so the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way, [for there are] seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal.” I’m afraid that sometimes we give up too easily. We assume it’s over when the story has only begun, for it is when hope seems to be lost that God speaks one last word that changes everything. We forget, we assume, we despair, but there it was in Romans: “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart,” and that word spoke to Elijah, that word spoke to me, that word is alive and well here and now finding us, redeeming us, filling us up – and sending us out. “Make it happen” the man said to me. “Go back to Israel” God said to Elijah. And “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news” Paul says to us today. “How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have not heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?” Once God tracks us down and speaks to us, we are sent right out to speak to the world. But what will we say? Will we say it right? Will they listen? This is my third Sunday here. The first two Sundays I was nervous, but now I’m self-conscious, because I watched myself the other day. I’ve always tried to listen to myself to hear whether I’m speaking to fast or mumbling. But watching myself might do more harm than good, because Melissa up there in the sound booth who video tapes the 11:15 service has this one camera angle that’s like right on this bald spot that I didn’t even know was there. It’s true. And now as I watch myself preach I can also see who in the choir is really listening and who is just making notes on their music. Who’s sleeping. I couldn’t see anybody sleeping, but it is fun to watch you guys. Jim Goodlett’s face made me feel like I was saying some really good stuff up here, which is nice. Then there are some others who start out listening with their arms crossed but then loosen up and laugh a little, which I like seeing, but still, it’s hard learning how you look and considering how you might be perceived, because you might reach the assumption that nothing is happening and no one is listening. But it’s not just our lips and what comes out of them – it’s our feet. You’ve heard it said that 80% of life is showing up, and I believe that’s true. To show up, to try, to be present – that’s most of it, and there’s more Scripture to back that up. You remember what Jesus told his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew: “When they hand you over [to be tried and persecuted], do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time.” So, there’s a difference between actually being there and assuming they won’t listen so you may as well not show up. There’s a difference between showing up at a funeral not knowing whether or not they’ll even notice that you were there, and assuming they won’t notice so you don’t show up. There is a difference between setting foot in the hospital room to sit by a dying friend not knowing what to say, and assuming there’s no point in going. There is a difference between getting to know a teacher by seeing her in action, and assuming that education in this country is failing and teachers are the problem. There is a difference between setting foot in Roosevelt Circle or Juarez, Mexico and seeing our neighbors face to face, and assuming that there’s nothing we can do to fight crime and poverty in our world. And there’s a difference between walking up to someone who thinks differently and plowing into them in a silver sports car. Yesterday it was in Charlottesville, Virginia. A protest ends in murder as a driver speeds into a crowd of people he disagrees with. Is that what God would do? Is that what God would lead anyone to do? In this world of division, hopelessness, ignorance, hatred, racism, and misinformation, Paul writes, “How beautiful are the feet” of those who don’t put their faith in assumptions, but trust that God, who finds us when we are lost and in darkness calls us out to meet our brothers and sisters who are still there. Ours is a God who has drawn near, walked the lonesome valley with us, not looking down from heaven in times of our distress, but coming as near to us to know all our joy and all our pain, taking human form to know us rather than make assumptions about who we are. So, go and do likewise. Go to them. Go to them and do not assume that you already know who they are. Do not assume that they already know what you have to bring, and do not worry about what you will say – for it’s not the mouth, nor the words, but the feet. Beautiful are the feet. Amen.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Come to the Waters

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