Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Privilege of Suffering

Scripture Readings: Jonah 3: 10 – 4: 11 and Philippians 1: 21-30 Sermon title: The Privilege of Suffering Preached on September 24, 2017 One of my favorite TV shows of all time is Seinfeld. It hasn’t been on for a while, but you might remember that Elaine’s most notorious boyfriend was a guy named Puddy, and at some point Puddy became a Christian. Now how did she know? He didn’t tell her that he became a Christian. His behavior never changed – he was still self-centered and one dimensional. In fact, the only reason Elain found out about this major change in her boyfriend was she borrowed his car and noticed that all the radio presets were set to Christian Radio, and he put a silver Jesus fish on the back. Elaine peeled it off. What made me think about this episode, which aired in 1998, was this week’s Scripture Lessons that I just read – both of these lessons describe two men, both of whom would tell you that they are trying to follow God, live righteous lives, but how do you know? How can you tell that someone is serious about following God? The song we used to sing in choir with Mrs. Stephens during Sunday School goes like this: “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love” - not by our preset radio stations and our Jesus fish, but by our love. So, what do we learn about Jonah? What sermon does his life preach? Jonah was really something. Considering all the prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, John the Baptist – all these powerful voices who cried out: “Repent! Change your ways!”; out of all of them Jonah was by far the most successful, doing the least and getting the best results. He preached just once. His sermon wasn’t even that good. We read in Jonah chapter three that “Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” that was his whole sermon. That’s it, and yet, there in chapter 3 verse 5, “The people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and everyone, great and small put on sackcloth.” You don’t have to be Bible scholar to know that this never happens. What usually happens is the prophet proclaims a message, vivid and poetic, over the course of years. Maybe, like Elijah or Elisha, he offers some convincing proof of the validity of his message – a miracle, or a healing – or maybe like Ezekiel or Hosea he lives his message by cooking his meals over cow dung and taking a prostitute for his wife, but even after such miracles or dramatic displays, what usually happens is that no one really listens to the prophet until after someone kills him. Only Jonah preaches one sermon, one sentence long, and immediately a whole city of foreigners repents. You would think he’d be proud, but what happens next is even more surprising than his success. That’s what our 1st Scripture Lesson for today was – Jonah’s response to the most successful prophetic career recorded in Scripture. Following such a dramatic show of repentance he should be preparing his speech for his induction into the Prophet’s Hall of Fame, but instead, “When God saw what [the Ninevites] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.” He was so angry in fact, that he wished that he might die. Now, in many ways, Jonah was a righteous man. He dedicated his career to ministry – he was no dresser of sycamore trees like the Prophet Amos – this guy was a professional prophet charged with listening to God, doing what God commanded him, but even if there had been a Jesus fish on the back of the whale that he drove in on I wonder about him, because while he doesn’t steal. He doesn’t use crass language. He probably went to worship every Sabbath day; did he love the people he proclaimed his message to? Isn’t that really, the only thing that matters? Paul on the other hand – think about Paul. You remember 1st Corinthians 13? You should because it’s been read at every wedding in the history of weddings: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” I’ll add to that – “even if there’s a Jesus fish on the back of your car, even if you preach through the streets a one sentence sermon, even if people listen to what you say and repent from their sinfulness, if you don’t have love in your heart for your neighbor what’s the point in what you’re doing?” Paul has some very important things to say to the Church today, because while many in our community listen to Christian radio and buy out Hobbie Lobby with all the trappings of Christianity – according to him it doesn’t matter what we listen to or what we hang on our wall if we don’t have love in our heart. I like Paul for making that point. And the whole time I’ve been here I’ve been preaching from Paul’s letters. I hope you don’t mind. We’ve just finished Romans last week, now we’re beginning four weeks of Philippians, and while I preach on Philippians Dr. Jim Speed is teaching a class on Philippians – so by the end of October we should all be experts. Of particular interest when it comes to Philippians is that Paul is writing this letter from prison. This physical location matters, because you can compare where he was in body and where he was in spirit as you read this letter. He wrote to a church that he loved, and you can hear it in his words how much he loved this congregation. He doesn’t start this letter: “To whom it may concern” – no, he writes in verse 12: “I want you to know, beloved.” That’s what he called them. And as you heard this passage from chapter 1 read I’m sure you could tell that here he isn’t so concerned with himself, whether he will be released, whether he will live or die, for in verse 21 we read: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, [but if I remain] I may share abundantly in your boasting Christ Jesus when I come to you again.” Consider that love – his love for God is so deep that he has abandoned any concern for his own physical wellbeing. He has surrendered to the will of God, and he is so free from selfishness, so full of love for God’s people, that you know this guy is a Christian. Then, compare Paul, who is in prison, and Jonah, who is not. That is a really a strong juxtaposition. Paul is in prison, but he’s happy. Jonah is sitting outside, but he’s miserable. Why is that? I believe that part of the answer comes from our Book of Confessions. As Presbyterians, we benefit from this beautiful legacy of faith – for generations faithful men and women have struggled to say what they believe. Most often we take advantage of this legacy by using the Apostles’ Creed – we today articulate our faith by saying what they – the first Apostles - believed, and that’s good, but in fact, we have a whole book full of such affirmations of faith. It’s called the Book of Confessions. Another confession besides the Apostles’ Creed is the Westminster Confession, which begins with this question: “What is the chief end of man?” The answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” That’s a counter cultural thought, for in our world today, if many were to answer honestly, they might say that their chief end, their purpose, is to make as much money as they can, to gain power and to hold on to it. Some might say that their purpose is to get as many people to pay attention to them as possible. Another might say it is to suck the marrow out of life – that’s from Henry David Thoreau, and it’s a good one, but it’s not the best because when I think about the kind of people who can rejoice, who can embody joy, who are free from the kind of self-centered misery that so many in our culture, like Jonah, suffer from. When I think of people who, even while in prison chains, can find a way to keep a smile on their face, I think of those faithful men and women who could see beyond their present circumstances believing that their lives served a greater purpose – and the greatest purpose of all - to glorify God. Consider Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote his greatest letter from the Birmingham Jail. Or consider Nelson Mandela who said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” That’s Jonah – still so consumed by his hatred of these Ninevites, that even though he’s free he’s in prison, while the Apostle Paul is in prison, but completely free because hatred can’t hold him captive. “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage. Minds innocent and quiet take That for a hermitage. If I have freedom in my love And in my soul am free Angels along that soar above Enjoy such liberty.” I wrote that poem for Sara yesterday. No, I’m just kidding – I wish I did. That comes from the final stanza of Richard Lovelace’s poem, ‘To Althea, from prison,’ and in these words is the reminder that love can set you free. The world needs to remember that. But, to quote the Everly Brothers: “Love hurts” too. I’ve titled this sermon “The Privilege of Suffering.” I have trouble with sermon titles because I have to come up with them on Tuesday and I often don’t have a sermon written until at least Friday, but this title isn’t so bad because there are those of us who know that suffering can be a gift, a privilege, especially when we suffer out of love. Jonah isn’t suffering in this way. The sun is in his eyes and he’s winning about it. Don’t you hate being around that kind of person? He’s also suffering because he’s only thinking of himself, and that’s the worst. On the other hand, Paul is suffering in body, but this is what he has to say about it: should you face opposition and struggle, know that “[God] has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering with him as well.” When we suffer out of love for God or our neighbor, we suffer with Christ – because we know that Christ suffered out of love for you and me. And his great suffering – he wouldn’t have changed it. He wouldn’t have avoided it. He went to the cross on purpose, because doing anything else would have been abandoning the people he loves and if those are the two options – loving and suffering or abandoning us – God chooses to stay and suffer every time. That’s not unlike the love that you who are parents have for your children. You try to give your children love, and for a while they just soak it up, but try to hold their hand when you know they’re scared walking into Middle School for the first time and see what happens. A few years down the line, you want to give them your stuff and they won’t take it. You know my grandmother told my mom for years that after the funeral, “if you dare drag my furniture out of the house for a yard sale I’ll haunt you for the rest of your life.” Love is a source of suffering – you love people and it’s hard because it’s like your heart is outside your chest. The people who you love disappoint you. They hurt themselves. They do foolish things – and don’t you know that our Father in heaven knows all about it. But what did he do? Even after death on the Cross he rose again three days later so that he could love us more. Love hurts, but if there’s love in your heart you’ll be free, even in prison. And love shows – because even if there’s a fish on your car, if you cut in front of someone and give them the bird they’ll see who you really are. We’ll go out into the world today – and may they know that we are Christians by our love, and I charge you with this for two reasons: 1. Because that’s one way we glorify God, thereby living our purpose 2. Because our creator just happened to make living out our purpose the only thing that will bring us joy and fulfillment. So, even when it hurts, go on loving and be free. A groom told me a story last Monday night. He was talking about his wedding day. How nervous he was about remembering his vows. There he was up in front of the church – friends and family all around – “what if I freeze and it’s time to speak but nothing comes out?” he’s thinking to himself. But then the doors open. The congregation stands. And he sees his bride, the woman who will soon be and is now Beth Eckford, and in his heart, despite the fear and anxiety that had been coming him, now, upon seeing here, there is only joy and peace. Love does that. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Am I in the Place of God?

Scripture Lessons: Genesis 50: 15-21 and Romans 14: 1-12 Sermon Title: Am I in the Place of God? Preached on September 17, 2017 To me, one of the most powerful lessons from our Lord Jesus Christ is the one he taught us when a woman was caught in adultery. You know this one well. A woman, we don’t know how old she was. We don’t know what she looked like. There are few details, so we don’t whether she was caught in the act, or if this punishment has come after the fact, nor do we know where her partner in crime was in this moment of condemnation, but what I imagine, without really knowing, is that she was alone, cowering as a crowd of self-righteous men gathered around her, stones in their hands. The Lord kneeled next to her, wrote something in the dirt with his finger, and said with conviction but to no one in particular, “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.” This is a radical word, and here in lies a radical lesson for all of us who would stand in judgement of our sister, for he doesn’t argue for her innocence. What he argues for, is for us to recognize our guilt. That’s important to do. And in a way, here at this church, we reinforce such a lesson every Sunday. Today like every Sunday when we first gathered here to worship God we began by confessing our sins – recognizing our guilt – which is important to do. I wrote the prayer of confession that we used today, and we prayed this prayer together, out loud, for everyone to hear, so now I can assume that you, like me, have trouble with forgiving your neighbor as you yourself have been forgiven because you made this confession with me. You might have just been following along with what everyone else was doing, but I’m going to call it a confession because you said the words: “The Lord does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities, but I retain the sins of my neighbor, refusing to let go.” Maybe now you’ll think twice before reading along with what’s printed. Maybe you didn’t realize I was listening for a confession, but that’s exactly the point of the prayer. What is required of us, we who gather here to worship, is so similar to what is required of those who gather for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The first step in AA is: “we admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.” And this first step towards sobriety is the same as the first step towards salvation – what’s required is not innocence, but confession. We admitted we were sinners in need of a savior, and we found one in Jesus Christ. We aren’t here because we’re innocent. We aren’t here because we’re good. No, what qualifies our membership here is a confession of sin, an acknowledgement of our need for a savior, and a willingness to admit that we cannot save ourselves. The Good News for our world full of people struggling to save themselves is that we don’t have to. That Jesus Christ died on the cross to save sinners, but the problem that Paul addresses for us today is that while we may rationally know and accept the truth of that statement in our hearts, we are too often like those men with stones in their hands, as though not being guilty today were the same as being innocent. Sometimes, we act like vegetarians. Not the kind who just don’t eat meat – I’m talking about the ones who don’t eat meat and like to make sure and tell you about it. Did you hear the one about the vegetarian who walked into a bar? In 15 minutes, he had told everybody. Paul says it like this: “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those eat; for God has welcomed them.” See the point? The point is not that vegetarians should eat meat. They’re just fine, and in fact, when you consider how our rainforests are so rapidly being depleted, not just by deforestation, but to make room for more and more grazing land for beef cattle, we carnivores who enjoy breathing would do well to thank a vegetarian every once in a while. Instead, we meat-eaters make fun of them. I saw a t-shirt for sale in a BBQ restaurant one time that said, “vegetarian” is the Cherokee word for “he who can’t hunt.” That’s not nice – and “who are you to pass judgement on servants of another?” Paul’s point here is that we are all the woman caught in adultery. Maybe we did less and she did more, or maybe we have even more to be forgiven for than she did, but that doesn’t matter. The point is – if you have been redeemed and forgiven than stop acting like you don’t need the same forgiveness that your neighbor does. “Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God [not the judgement seat of you or me or your daddy or your self-righteous sister] - we will stand before the judgement seat of God and if you’re judging your neighbor than you’re in the wrong seat. Get down from the judgement seat – that’s the point. That’s Paul’s point. And Paul must make this point because those who comprehend the grace of God should have no need to distract from their own guilt by pointing out the sins of their neighbor. Christianity can’t be about shaming or making someone feel guilty, but that’s the practice of so many who claim to follow Christ, so Paul has to make this point. Paul knows what motivates our finger pointing – we judge when we feel judged. We make others feel insecure because we feel insecure. We withhold grace from our neighbors because we withhold grace from ourselves, which is an awful thing to do in Paul’s mind for if we don’t enjoy the grace that God gives than to use his words, “Christ died for nothing.” That’s Galatians 2: 21: “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” And what does that mean? That means that we can’t save ourselves. We can’t be perfect. And if we go trying to be, if we go around acting like we are, then all that suffering that Christ endured for us and for our salvation was for nothing. We are saved by the grace of God – so don’t judge yourself or your neighbor by a standard of perfection. You don’t have to be perfect, because he was perfect for us. That’s Good News. And that’s the kind of Good News that changes things. Consider how it changed Joseph. There’s a picture of him on the cover of your bulletin. He’s there with his brothers, and you’ll notice that he’s in the judgement seat on the right, but on the left he is cowering in the shadow. If you were Joseph than most people would say that you had a right to be judgmental. Think about what his brothers did to him. Do you remember? They were jealous because daddy loved him the most, gave him the nicest clothes and the easiest jobs, and motivated by their jealousy they threw him down into a pit, which was better than their original plan which was to kill him, and then, they sold him to a caravan of Ishmaelite’s who took him away. The story gets worse. I like to think that older siblings will look after the younger ones, but these guys – they sold him, told dad he had been eaten, he ended up in Egypt, then was falsely accused of a crime and ended up in prison – any and all of these events are good justification for being angry with these brothers when they come to him, now looking for help, but how could he be angry when it was these events that led to Joseph to rise in power, for it was in the prison that he met Pharaoh, interpreted his dreams, and became his trusted advisor. Now, as these brothers grovel before him, on the one hand what Joseph must have seen were the big brothers who now weren’t so big – but instead, what he saw, were the men who were used by God to help him rise in power and status, now putting him in a place where he can save his family from starvation, and so Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” Can you really get mad if everything turned out this well? Can you hold a grudge, when God took someone’s evil intentions and did something wonderful? Would you dare stand in judgement, taking the place of God, when you know that through the grace of God life for you is good? To quote the Frozen soundtrack: “Let it go.” Just let it go. Forgive them, because you have been forgiven. That’s the lesson. And if you take it to heart, then you won’t be a part of the self-righteousness that fuels so much division in our country and our world. It’s hard for me to watch the news these days. A lot of the time current events reminds me of that old Buffalo Springfield song: “nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” Just as Paul addresses this congregation all torn up over who eats meat and who doesn’t, we live in a country where family’s divide and friendships end over who gets elected and who believes what. There are Fox News people and CNN people. Red States and Blue States. Prolife and prochoice and in this day and age to me there’s been no more helpful advice than the 1952 speech by Mississippi state representative and judge Noah “Soggy” Sweat Jr. Addressing the contentious question of prohibition, Judge Sweat stood before the Mississippi State Legislature and said: My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, this is how I feel about whiskey: If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally take the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it. But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentlemen’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, and pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it. This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise. We get so caught up in who is right and who is wrong – but are we not all wrong? And is he not the only one who ever got it right? So quickly we gather stones, but am I in the place of God? Knowing what is right and what is true? No, I am not. Thanks be to God, I am not. Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Our Heritage of Love

Scripture Lessons: Ezekiel 33: 7-11 and Romans 13: 8-14 Sermon Title: Our Heritage of Love Preached on September 10, 2017 Today is really something, isn’t it? Never in my life have I worn a kilt. Never in my life have I had the opportunity to wear a kilt. This is a new experience, and up until this point, the most I had ever done to celebrate my Scotts-Irish Heritage was to occasionally use Irish Spring Soap; eat at a little dining establishment founded by a couple of Scottish brothers called McDonalds. This is a special day. A day like this is a gift, because celebrating who we are, where we came from, can be joyful and life giving, but, celebrating heritage in this day and age can also get a little dicey. Just this word: Heritage. Considering headlines in the past few months, that word has been and will continue to be contentious, especially if you are a white-southerner, so for me, this has been another year of wondering how to celebrate heritage. When it comes to heritage, I am often wondering, how can we, without offending our neighbor, be proud of who we are and where we came from? That’s a question I’ve been asking for a long time. I remember being on the 8th Grade trip to Washington D.C. when I was a student at Marietta Middle School – a group of us were gathered around a display case full of Rebel Flag patches. I bought one, used the hotel sowing kit to sloppily attach it to my jacket, which seemed like a pretty cool way to celebrate my southern roots, until some of my African-American classmates noticed it. The look on their face is something I’ll never forget. What do we do with heritage? Some say, especially in reference to the Rebel Flag, that it’s “heritage, not hate,” but if it feels like hate to my neighbor I’m a little reluctant to celebrate it. Simply put, that’s Paul’s message to us today – we worry over heritage wanting to celebrate what is near and dear to our hearts – but it must not be only our hearts that we are mindful of, for any commandment is summed up in this word: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Still, there are particular genes that make up my body, that I long to celebrate in a loving way. There is a particular blood flowing through my veins. I am from a particular place which makes up my heritage. There’s no denying that – I face it every time we go to the beach because I turn bright red in five minutes while my wife and children turn a gorgeous shade of brown. I also feel something when watching a movie like Braveheart – that these people are my people. This is some of where I came from, and today, what’s special about today, is that today I’m invited to wear a kilt and to be proud, and isn’t that wonderful? It’s so wonderful, that I understand the Episcopalians are wanting to have their own Kirkin' of the Tartan, even though that wouldn’t make any sense. In fact, thinking of how their tradition emerged from England just as ours has strong roots in Scotland, what should really happen is next year we should all paint our faces blue and stand in their parking lot: “You may take our lives, but you’ll never take our freedom!” And maybe that’s back to the problem with Heritage: - you can’t talk about bagpipes without thinking about how they were once outlawed, and who outlawed them. -you can’t think about Scotts-Irish immigrants without thinking about how they faced such hardship, fled to escape it, only to find it again once they set foot on these shores. -you can’t talk about being from the South without thinking about slavery and war and discrimination, for as we go back in history, as we talk about heritage, we have to be careful because when we go back into history it takes about five minutes to find something that one group did to another, the scars of which are still all around us. Here we are in Cobb County, where the Cherokee People were removed. Where a Jewish man was falsely accused of a crime and was lynched. Where a war was fought and people died as the institution of slavery hung in the balance. When it comes to heritage, looking back on the past, it’s hard not to keep score. It’s hard not to keep track of who has been wronged, who has a debt to pay, who has blood on their hands, for in so many ways the story of human history is an account of one group of people, one culture, doing their best to lift themselves up while pushing the others down – so heritage gets tricky. However, as Christians, our heritage is not just a story of what was done or not done by our ancestors. Ours is not just a story of who is best and brightest, who’s family has been here the longest and who’s blood is the bluest for on a day like today, the point is not that Tartans were brought into this Great Hall in a grand procession, but that here at the chancel those tartans were blessed by God. So, yes – we have some trouble when it comes to celebrating heritage, but let us grateful for a day like today, when we are invited, all of us, to celebrate who we are, while claiming the truth of the Gospel – that truly, while we cannot be proud of all that our forefathers and foremothers have done, today we bow before the who God who loves us and calls us his children still. Therefore, what we must celebrate today, is not only the legacy of greatness, struggle, hardship, and glory nor only a heritage of prejudice, racism, genocide, and slavery. Instead, what we celebrate today is that despite our sinfulness, we are all the children of God. That’s what we remember at Pentecost too. I’m sure you remember how after the Lord ascended into heaven the disciples gathered in Jerusalem and the Holy Spirit came to them like a mighty wind, giving each of them the gifts of tongues, so that every inhabitant of the Holy City heard God speaking to them in their own native languages. These weren’t perfect people – among them was Thomas who doubted, Peter who denied him – in some way or another, like us they had all done things that they were ashamed of, but still, God worked through them, and it’s not that the inhabitants of Jerusalem were all able to speak the same language – no – they all heard God speak to them in their Mother Tongue, and that’s different. You remember that great quote from the first female governor of Texas, Miriam Ferguson: “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for Texas school children.” Now, there’s a problem with that statement. The problem is that Jesus, while we all like to make him look like us, was a Palestinian Jew. He spoke a particular language. His hair and his skin reflected the particularities of his native people, and when he traveled around people made fun of how he talked and what he ate, just as people up in Tennessee thought it was funny that I consider boiled peanuts a delicacy. And they are, but as we consider heritage, let me tell you something interesting about peanuts – the peanut was first domesticated in South America, and when the Spanish arrived there 500 years ago they took it worldwide, but where it truly flourished was in West Africa – and some have claimed that the ancestor of the peanut that makes up the contents of your jar of JIFF at home was smuggled over here in the pocket of a West African Slave. But not only that, it was not until former slave, George Washington Carver developed new growing techniques as well as hundreds of recipes for it that there was much agricultural production of the peanut in the South by white farmers, so therefore, without the South Americans, the Spanish, the West Africans, and a former slave, there is no peanut farming President Jimmy Carter, and there is no redneck boiling peanuts on the side of the North Georgia highway. We get so torn up about race and culture – heritage – but are we not indebted to each other? Are we not far more entwined than we are separate? And are we not above all, not vindicated nor condemned for our part, but rather, indebted to God who works through us despite our imperfections. Our history books are full of great deeds and tragic mistakes, a mixed bag of heroes and villains, and we Christians who pray, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” must be careful with heritage – for we all stand before God condemned, but we have received a grace that we cannot deserve. How then can we withhold such grace from our neighbors – that’s what Paul asks. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Still, there are those of us who are tempted to keep score and to puff themselves up just as we read in Ezekiel – the prophet has been given a message to preach to the people, but he only wants some of them to hear it and be saved. So, God had to correct him just as God must correct us: “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” As I look at our world today, I worry that too few are ready for that kind of message. Are we ready for a God who wants to save everybody regardless of native language, skin color, or nationality? Are we ready for the God that Paul testifies to? In whose sight there is “no Jew, nor Greek, no slave nor free, no male and female”? The Gospel lays it on our culture pretty heavy. So many of us are ready to celebrate who we are and where we came from regardless of how it makes their neighbors feel. So many of us are only willing to treat the people who look like us and talk like us as equals, while pushing those who act a little different to the margins. That’s why Paul has to remind us of those radical words of the Lord Jesus Christ: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And that’s a hard thing to do…especially during college football season. You watch the crowds and listen to what they say, you have to wonder, if Georgia fans hate Florida fans this much, then how are we ever going to get along with people who really are different? How are we ever going to get along with those who we have done harm to and those who have done harm to us? Tomorrow we remember that horrible day when airplanes were used as weapons by men who called us infidels, and we’ll remember all the blood shed in the wars that have followed. But may the blood shed on our sanctuary floor so many years ago help us to remember something else – that while the war raged on Kennesaw Mountain, in this place there was healing. And we have been called on to be a place of healing again. Last week a Nursing Home in Savanna, GA called the church looking for a place of refuge during the hurricane. They needed us to be their plan B, for they had a place to go in Augusta, GA, but if the hurricane went that way they’d need a safe place to be. The Session met. Rev. Joe Brice, Martie Moore, and Andy Tattnall led the charge, all believing that what Joe Brice said was true: “That if this church has already been a hospital, then we can be a Nursing Home.” Of course, now, it may be us who are evacuating to them, but the Session amazed me in discussing all this, because opening up our doors this way to a bunch of people we don’t even know is a radical thing to do. There’s a part of our heritage that makes us suspicious of people who don’t look like us or talk like us, who aren’t from around here, but we, who know that we are sinners, know that we stand as debtors before the God of grace who has redeemed us. What is required then, is that we see our neighbors, not in light of what might be gained from them or what they might take away, not in light of what they’ve done to deserve our help or not deserve it, but to see them only in light of what we might give them, acknowledging the truth – that by God we have been given far more than we deserve, so we must pass our blessings on. “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness [or any of the other ways that we humans have for treating our neighbors like objects of physical pleasure], not in quarreling and jealousy [for are we not all God’s children?].” Instead of rivalry and war, let us love on another. For it is in loving one another that we so truly celebrate our heritage, not our heritage of hate, but our heritage of love. Amen.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

He Did What He Meant to Do

Scripture Lessons: Jeremiah 15: 15-21 and Romans 12: 9-21 Sermon Title: He Did What He Meant to Do Preached on 9/3/17 Last Thursday I faced a sort of moral dilemma. Last Friday night I faced one too – Martha Goodlett asked me whether a preacher should be cheering for the Blue Devils when they’re playing Holy Trinity, but I want to talk about the moral dilemma from last Thursday. I blocked off a small part of my morning to go to the Chiropractor. I’ve found that chiropractic really helps with all kinds of aches and pains, especially my migraine headaches, and I have this wonderful new chiropractor who you know – Dr. Janet Lewis, but I didn’t have an appointment, I just hoped the wait wouldn’t be too long, and I blocked off this time to slip in. However, it was 8:30, when everyone else was trying to slip in – or, when everyone else had made an appointment like a respectable patient. The waiting room was full, so I asked the receptionist how long she thought the wait would be. She said, not too long 15 or 20 minutes, but my car was at the mechanic and Sara needed her car that I was driving back, so I told the receptionist that I would come back later. Now the moral dilemma. Kelly Dewar keeps up with my schedule. She sees when I block off time for the chiropractor, and doesn’t plan any meetings for me during those times. It’s wonderful the order she brings to my life, but when I get back to the church, I’m thinking, what if Kelly asks me, “how was the chiropractor?” What am I going to say, since now I didn’t actually even go? I blocked off time to go to the chiropractor, not to drive in the car for 30 minutes. That’s not something I would ever schedule. So, what I mean here is this – what do you call it if you don’t do the thing that you meant to do? Or to think in terms of faith – is there such a thing as a non-practicing Christian? What do you call a person who says he believes but never puts that belief into action? Who never does the thing he meant to do? I had lunch with Dr. Sam Matthews this week. He’s the Senior Pastor over at First Methodist. We were at the Country Club and he pointed out this table in the corner. He said, “You see those ladies. That’s the No Sew Club.” “What is the No Sew Club?” I asked. He told me that, “They used to sew and now they don’t, which is like a lot of my church members – they’re in the No Church Club – they used to come and now they don’t.” What do you call it if you only used to do something? Or, what do you call it if you never did? You only meant to? Something that Paul brings to light today in this lesson from the 12th Chapter of his letter to the church in Rome is that Christianity is not a noun but a verb – when you stop being a Christian, when you stop living as a Christian, are you really a Christian any longer? These words are the perfect Benediction, because they send us out into the world to live our faith: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” You’ve heard these words before. As I’ve settled into my office upstairs I open the main drawer and there they are: Go forth into the world in peace. Be of good courage. Hold fast to that which is true. Render to no one evil for evil. Strengthen the faint hearted” – you know these words because Dr. Jim Speed sent us all out into the world to live them every Sunday. Every Sunday he preached here he reminded us as Paul does that we must live our faith. And it looks funny if we don’t. As I mentioned before, my car has been in the shop. Mary Margaret Doyle sent me to see a man named Gary at the Jett Shell on Roswell Road, and he told me that if I mention him in the sermon he’ll give me a 25% discount. I’m just kidding about that. But he did give me a ride back to the church after I dropped off the car, which was wonderful. And this guy – he’s in a book club with John Knox, he’s been in the mechanic business for years, he’s a grandfather, he’s a wonderful person, and listen to this – his grandfather was a Baptist preacher. Gary the mechanic’s grandfather was bi-vocational, meaning that he worked in the mill up in North Georgia during the week and preached all around on Sundays, and Gary, as a young man, cherished this time when he remembers ridding the circuit with his grandfather, hearing him preach as he traveled from church to church. His grandfather, a seasoned preacher, told young Gary the story of the most memorable funeral he officiated. As he entered the sanctuary he could smell the flowers before he saw them. There were more flower arrangements than he had ever seen before. The chancel was covered. He could barely make his way to the pulpit. Obviously, this was a well-loved woman who had died. You could see it. But the last song of the service was that old Gospel Song: “Just One Rose Will Do.” The soloist sang, among all those flowers: When time shall come for my leaving, When I bid you adieu; Don’t spend your money for flowers, Just one rose will do. And yet the chancel, the pulpit, the whole room was covered in flowers. What do you do with that? What do you call it if you don’t do the thing that you meant to do? Can you sing the words without living them? Can you believe in the Lord Jesus without following him? Can you be a Christian without living out this faith? That’s what got me about my Brother Joel Osteen this week. I call him brother, but I love this church better than his. And I’m a little jealous of his hair, and while we are both preaching the same Gospel, what does it say about the whole Church if we declare a message of “extending hospitality to strangers” but the doors to our church are reluctant to open in the time of disaster and flood? Maybe you heard that eventually the doors to his church did open – that after three days the doors to the church opened to welcome in those who had lost their homes to the flood waters, and I don’t know the whole story. I can’t be self-righteous here, but it did strike me as odd that the Oscar Blues, Muller, Coors, and Anheuser-Bush breweries immediately shifted production from canned beer to canned water while the church took three days to open her doors. What do you do with that? We all have to remember that for some people, the only Gospel they will ever hear is the one that we live through our actions. When our doors are closed, they hear a Gospel of Condemnation. When our hearts are closed, they hear a Gospel of Rejection. When our noses are upturned and our chests inflated, they hear a Gospel of Favoritism. But when we open our arms wide in forgiveness and reconciliation they hear the true Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. We must live our faith. Christianity is about what we believe in our minds and carry in our hearts. The Prophet Jeremiah didn’t just carry around a Bible – he ate the pages and lived the words. So, we also must live what we believe, and what we believe is this: That our Lord Jesus Christ came to the earth. And when he did, he loved sinners. He ate with outcasts. He treasured children. He forgave sins. He lifted broken women up from a society that had objectified them. He empowered fishermen to preach the most important message this world has ever heard. And he so lived what he believed, that as the great act of love to human kind he gave his life so that you and I might know our worth in the eyes of God. He did what he meant to do. And what does he ask of you? I’ll say it again – not as Paul wrote it in Romans chapter 12, but as the pastor who I grew up with said it every Sunday: Go Forth into the world in peace. Be of good courage. Hold fast to that which is true. Render to no one evil for evil. Strengthen the fainthearted. Support the weak. Help the afflicted. Honor all. Love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the Holy Spirit. And the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.