Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Path of Totality

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 56: 1, 6-8 and Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32 Sermon title: The Path of Totality Preached on 8/20/17 You might have seen a picture of me that I posted a couple weeks ago. Mike Clotfelter brought it by and maybe you saw it if you’re into Facebook and have seen our church’s Facebook page. It’s a picture of me and Matt Buchanan and some other guys when we were in High School. We had a band, though not everyone would call it that, so I use the word “band” loosely. We sort of made music, and seeing this picture was affirmation of something that I already knew: that it’s going to be a little different being a pastor in a church where people remember what I was like in High School. Since being here I’ve been overjoyed to shake hands with old Sunday School teachers – all these people who did their best to nurture me in the church. On my first Sunday here, four weeks ago now, one of the first people I saw was Nate Marini, and all I could think of when I saw him was, “I hope you can forgive me.” I’ve seen Bob and Vivian Stephens. She taught us music during Sunday School and I know that I can sing every song in that songbook verbatim. They’re all right here in my heart, and that’s saying something, because back then I wasn’t in a place where I was paying that close of attention. It’s a lesson in forgiveness being here. Forgiveness, acceptance, a lesson in love – all of that and I say this because the verse that people have been quoting to me since announcing this move has been Luke 4: 24: “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” It can be a scary thing coming home, but then there are these moments, like last Thursday morning when Ken Farrah tells a group of 100 or so at a men’s Bible Study that he was my 7th grade Sunday School teacher. And while he had the chance, he left out the details about any misadventures or misbehavior. It’s a gift to be back here. It’s a gift to come home. And I say a gift, because I know better than to take this for granted. Not everyone feels like they can ever go back home, and it is a gift to know that we are welcome back. On the other hand, in fear, sometimes when we think of God, some of us imagine the great scorekeeper who’s been keeping track of what we’ve done and what we shouldn’t have done. One who has been keeping track of debts owed and wrongs to right, but the counter to this image is the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. You know this one well. A son goes away, squanders his inheritance on loose living, and in desperation he returns home, just hoping that his father will allow him to come and work as one of his hired hands. He’s surprised then that his Father rushes out the door to meet him, and before he’s so much as apologized, he’s been embraced by the grace and forgiveness of a parent who is just so thankful to have his son come back home. This is God – a Father longing for a relationship restored. That’s a beautiful image, and I believe this image is important. I prayed something similar this past week. A friend named Marcy Lay, she is the Music Director at the church I served in Columbia, TN, she gave me a prayer book called The Valley of Vision. Marcy is the kind of person who will really wear out a prayer book. She gave me this book, and with the book came a note saying that she’d be praying for me as I begin my ministry here, and when Marcy says she’ll pray for you she means it and that’s a real blessing. One morning this week I prayed a prayer from that book with this phrase which struck me as timely: O Lord, show me what sins hide thee from me And eclipse thy love. That’s poetic, isn’t it. And prayer books are good this way. The book of Psalms is good this way. The words prayed by others become personal, because they finally give voice to the deep feelings of our own hearts, and these words are way more poetic than any that I could dream up. But they do articulate something that I’ve felt – that the truly detrimental result of my sin isn’t punishment so much as separation, and what God desires deeply is to remove the sin that hides God from me. O Lord, show me what sins hide thee from me – this is a prayer for a restored relationship. This prayer is a request and acknowledgement, a prayer calling on God to remove this obstacle that stands in the way of a full, loving, relationship, and an acknowledgement that this obstacle, this road block, is of my own creation. However, what we believe about Christ is that in his death and resurrection the obstacle has been removed, forgiven, washed away in the waters of baptism so that the Father can rush out to embrace his son. O Lord, show me what sins hide thee from me – this is a good prayer of confession, that must be followed by a celebration, that the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting and in the name of Jesus Christ we are forgiven. But if you’ll remember, while the Prodigal Son was embraced by his father, the Prodigal’s brother stood smugly by. That’s a horrible place to be. Shouldn’t we all long for the day when God’s love would no more be eclipsed for anyone? And speaking of eclipse. Apparently, something is happening with the sun and the moon tomorrow. I don’t know if you’ve heard anything about it. Sara and I plan to take our girls out of school early so that we can all be outside together wearing our ridiculous glasses to witness this moment of darkness in the middle of the day. The moon blocking the sun’s rays just as sin might block God’s love. Even though we are not quite in The Path of Totality, which is, without a doubt, the coolest phrase I’ve ever heard to describe anything – even though we don’t live exactly in that slice of the earth that will experience total eclipse, what I’ll now be thinking about as the moon blocks the sun are the ways that my sin would hide me from God, the ways that I might be tempted to hide from a loving Father. When in truth, what this loving God has done is sent his son to the earth to push the moon aside so that we might all bask in the warmth of God’s wonderful love. That’s grace. That’s forgiveness. But sometimes it is those of us who have received a gift that are the worst about passing it on. That’s why Paul lectures the Christians in Rome about the Jews, saying, “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable. [And] just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy…, so they have now been disobedient in order that…they may now receive mercy” from you. Now that’s big. And it’s a big warning to any of us who are tempted to act like the Prodigal’s brother. How can you, who have now received mercy, withhold mercy? The issue Paul is addressing here is both historic and timeless. In those days, there was the issue of understanding how the Jewish people could both be waiting for a Messiah while rejecting him once he showed up, and many Christians felt about those Jews the way we feel about any and all of the people who left or rejected us. They can just sleep in the bed that they’ve made for themselves. But, how can I, as one who has received mercy, deny mercy to someone else? That’s the word that Paul has for us today – a reminder of how this grace thing works – a lesson on what forgiveness is – and a call to remember that we are not here because we are perfect, because we are holy, because we are better than anyone else. No. What unifies us who are here is that we know that we are sinners in need of forgiveness and that we have received that forgiveness in a merciful savior who pushed the moon so that we might bask in the love of God. Therefore, it’s always important to remember that we must pass on the grace that we’ve received. Because the world is misunderstanding who we are and what we believe calling us judgmental and self-righteous. Because sometimes we are. And so, as the people of God, when we turn our backs and suspend grace to those who need it, we preach a gospel of condemnation to a people still walking in darkness. But did you hear it in what the Prophet Isaiah said: “Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered” even foreigners and eunuchs. Our expectation must be that God is about the work of gathering more and more and more, rather than fencing out and drawing lines and building walls to keep so many out. We must be about gathering and not excluding. We must be about welcoming and not turning our backs. We must be about grace and love and forgiveness rather than debts and failings and shortcomings because returning home takes courage – far too much courage to greet the Prodigal Son with anything other than the grace that we ourselves received, and as our public discourse becomes harsher, as our country becomes more divided and more self-righteous, the goal must be to move closer to “the path of civility” as the Marietta Daily Journal put it just this morning, moving ever further away from the path of total and complete eclipse blocking redeeming rays of God’s love and mercy. It’s not too late for the Neo-Nazi to see the light – but he must realize that he is no more a child of God than the Jew. It’s not too late for the Klansman to bask in the light of love – but he must not be so bold as to deny such love to his brother with a different shade of skin. And the liberals must remember this as they march, recognizing that just because they believe they have some good solutions to old problems, if it’s only the liberals who are going to make it to the Promised Land leaving everyone else out than I’m not sure I’m very interested in going. No one has all the answers – and just as God is about the work of gathering all people together, so must we. We can’t be like Jonah, disappointed that the Ninivites repent and are reconciled to God. The hatred that infects this nation is the enemy – not the people who embody the hatred – because God wants them back too. God is about removing the stumbling block – pushing whatever it is that separates us from his love out of the way, so we must be about the work of pushing away what divides us – be that hatred, fear, or self-righteous judgment. The goal must be staying together, passing on the same mercy that we have received, rather than standing in judgement. We must remember that salvation is good and joyful. We’ve heard too much judgement and guilt, haven’t we? I remember too well one summer when I was a counselor at Camp Cherokee. The preacher gave his talk to this group of young campers. It was all about the Cross and the suffering of our Lord. He told them about the crown and how when they put the crown of thorns on his head how blood dripped down the sides of his face. “But that’s not what killed him children,” the preacher said. Then they whipped him, and how they whipped him within an inch of his life. “But that’s not what killed him children,” because then they took these big rusty nails, and they pounded those nails into his hands, “but even that’s not what finally killed him children. Do you know what finally killed him?” A young man, 9 or 10, he lifted up his voice and he asked, “Was it tetanus?” You see – salvation is Good News. Forgiveness is Good News. Grace is Good News. Too good for the people who have received it to cover it up with shame, fear, or judgement. Amen.

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