Wednesday, November 29, 2023
I once heard a story about a brand-new pastor who wanted to make a big impression during his first sermon at his new church, so that first Sunday, un-showered and unshaven, he dressed in his mangiest outfit and showed up in front of the church early, long before the service started. Pulling a knit cap over his ears, he curled up in a sleeping bag on the steps in front of the main doors of his new church. As the congregation arrived, you can imagine how this went. Not knowing who he was, and assuming he had spent the cold night out on the church steps, some greeted him compassionately. These gentle lambs invited him into the church parlor. They offered him coffee, a snack, and a clean change of clothes; while some others, having no idea that this was their new pastor who might one day visit them in the hospital or officiate their funerals, grumbled under their breath, just loud enough for him to hear those old goats express their concern about the decline of the neighborhood and criticize public transportation for bringing this kind of person to their part of town. During the prelude, imagining that their new pastor would be clean shaven and dressed in a black robe, everyone in the congregation was surprised to see the man who some had greeted with compassion and others with contempt walk down the aisle and up to the pulpit, where he quoted our second Scripture lesson from the Gospel of Matthew: Jesus said, I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked, and you gave me clothing… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. Friends, when I read our Gospel lesson, it occurs to me that Jesus, like this pastor, turns the world on its head and expects us to behave differently than we often do. Today is the Sunday we call Christ the King Sunday. It’s the last Sunday of the church year before Advent begins again. Today, we remember that while there were pharaohs in Egypt who were honored with pyramids and gold, emperors who ruled the Roman Empire with impunity, and while the sun never set on the land governed by Louis XIV of France, we bow our heads before the King of Kings. The Lord of Lords. The Alpha and Omega. The Beginning and the End. Today, we say that He will reign over the nations forever, that His kingdom shall have no end, and so long as we desire to remain in His good graces, we must understand that He had no typical throne room but was born in a manger. If we want to hear Him say at the end of our days, “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” we must understand that in His lifetime, He associated with the outcasts of society, and as He died, He was executed as a common criminal with a thief by His side. Given His nature, must we push our neighbors aside to kiss His ring or bow before Him? Should we amass great riches of silver or gold to lay at His feet? Can we impress Jesus the way we impress our neighbors, with the best car in the driveway or greenest lawn on the street? As He considers those who will enter His kingdom, will He examine our resume? At the gates of Heaven, will there be one last check for our good credit score? No. A good credit score will get you a car and a mortgage, but it can’t get you into the Kingdom of Heaven. For entry into the Kingdom of Heaven, what is required, according to the Gospel of Matthew, is a letter of reference from the poor. While we can’t always impress the powers of the world this way, our second Scripture lesson makes clear what the Lord requires, for when we look into the eyes of the thirsty, the downtrodden, the lost, the afflicted, the marginalized, and rejected, we may well be looking into the eyes of Christ himself, for Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” In other words, should you be one who lives by the dictum, “It’s not what you know but who you know,” then recognize this truth with me. Get to know the friendless and you’ll get to know the Lord. Rub shoulders with the imprisoned and make it through the pearly gates. While the hungry may not help us get that promotion, the naked can’t get our kid in the starting lineup, and the thirsty can’t help us skip the line to get a new iPhone, take Jesus at His word when He says, “When you welcome the stranger, you have welcomed me.” This morning, let us take Jesus at His word when He says that the time will come when the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and the only thing that will matter then, the factor that will set one apart from the other, is who has shown kindness to those society rejects. That’s a plain message. It’s a clear message, but it’s a countercultural message, for Jesus is always countercultural. Even here in Marietta, GA, remember that Jesus is countercultural, and the ways we’ve conformed to Marietta, GA may be habits that enable us to advance in this community, while keeping us out of the Kingdom of Heaven, for entry into the Kingdom of Heaven requires us to act differently. The followers of Jesus must learn new ways of being. Future residents of that New Heaven and New Earth can’t settle in, adopting the ways of this fallen world. Right? So, while we have these wonderful schools that will help our kids get ahead in the world, and while we pay so much attention to their grades and their extracurricular activities because we want our kids to get into Georgia, Georgia isn’t everything. Eternal life requires its own work of preparation. Now, don’t let that scare you. Heaven may be easier to get into than the University of Georgia. According to a columnist in the Marietta Daily Journal, years ago, his letter of acceptance to the University of Georgia came addressed to him “or current resident.” It doesn’t work like that these days. Kids need a tutor and a good ACT score, plus letters of recommendation. I say, help your kid get into college, but don’t forget to teach her what she needs to do to get into Heaven. Pay attention to how your kids and grandkids act around poor people. If your kids don’t know how to act around people who don’t look like them, whose parents make less money, or if your kids don’t know how to talk to their classmates who have unwashed hair, threadbare clothes on their backs, or the wrong shoes on their feet, remember what Jesus said, “Just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” I’ve been watching too much TV lately, and so I have in my mind these plot lines I’ve seen. Have you been watching The Gilded Age? It’s just like Downton Abby, but it takes place in New York City. In the episode last week, the Duke was coming to town from England. Everyone wanted to be seated next to him, and to sit next to the Duke, you had better know which glass to drink from when and what to do with the tiny fork at the top of your place setting. In high society, knowing how to deal with silverware matters, so I want our kids to know about this kind of thing. Our daughter Lily has even been to The Social Class, which will get her far in life. Table manners will get you far. They’ll help you impress the Duke, but what about the King of Kings? Jesus won’t be checking for good table manners at the Gates of the Kingdom of Heaven. Will he? No. According to our Gospel lesson, He’ll be watching for which hungry people get fed by whom, for when we’ve fed the least of these, we’ve fed Him. Knowing that when we feed hungry people, that what we do for the least of these, we’ve done for Him, how might we better use our Saturdays? A few Saturdays ago, I took our daughter Cece to this place up near Cartersville so she could play in a basketball tournament, which lasted all day. I was glad to drive her up there. I love to watch that kid play, but at the tournament was a crowd of parents all cheering for their kids, wanting to see them do well. With that many parents and that many kids, it was a pressure cooker in there. We were yelling at the refs. Yelling at the other team. One kid’s dad got kicked out and then so did her grandma. Why? Because we want our kids to do well. We want them to make whatever team they try out for. All parents want their kids to do well because only those who can really play make the team. Yet Jesus won’t be asking anyone to make a free throw before he enters the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s not how it works. What, then, should we be teaching our kids? How should we ourselves be living? Rather than a line out the door to get them into the right preschools, there ought to be a line right around the Cobb County Jail so that we can visit the people whom Jesus calls us to visit. There ought to be a line right around the block to volunteer for the Pantry on Church, our food distribution ministry, because Jesus says, “If you’ve fed them, you’ve fed me.” We all ought to have empty closets because we clothe the naked. We all ought to be digging wells in arid regions of our world because those who give a drink to the thirsty are getting in. And those who haven’t? That’s there in verse 46: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” What a Gospel lesson this is. It’s easy to understand what Jesus means here, and it’s even easy to do what the King of Kings is expecting of us if we put our minds to it. Yet, our minds aren’t always in the right place. I told you before I’ve been watching a lot of TV. I’ve been watching too much TV, really, so I’ve moved from the good shows to the documentaries. I was watching a documentary last Wednesday morning about the holy relics of Europe. Did you know that when Notre Dame burned, the fire department had to go find the crown of thorns? For generations, believers have traveled far, gone on pilgrimages, to get close to holy relics, be it the crown of thorns or the Shroud of Turin. No doubt these are priceless items, worthy of respect and veneration, but people go miles to visit them so that they might feel close to Jesus, while Jesus says right here in the Gospel of Matthew, “When you have served the least of these, you’ve served me.” We don’t have to travel half-way around the world to be close to Jesus. We can just go next door. Around the corner. To the MUST shelter or our own Pantry on Church. We don’t have to get on a plane to get close to Jesus, for He is all around us all the time. All we must do is open our eyes and our hearts to the people our society has taught us to be indifferent to. Let’s let go of what our society has taught us about getting ahead in this world, for getting ahead in the Kingdom of Heaven comes down to how well we’ve served the least of these, for in serving them, in holding their hands, we’ve held the hands of the King of Kings. Halleluiah. Amen.
Wednesday, November 15, 2023
I’d like to begin this sermon with an announcement to any who haven’t ever been to this church before: I don’t normally dress like this. Our worship services aren’t always like this. Today is a special day, celebrating the Scottish roots of the Presbyterian Church. As this is a Presbyterian Church, one Sunday each year, we take the time to celebrate where our faith tradition came from with this special worship service, called Kirkin’ of the Tartan. You might be thinking to yourself, “If I’m not Scottish, can I still be a Presbyterian?” Hear me say, up until I became the pastor here, the most Scottish thing I’d ever done was watch the movie Braveheart and occasionally have a sip or two of Glenlivet. Every year, I struggle again to put on this kilt. It’s not immediately clear which side of this thing is the front. I also struggle to remember where the decorative dagger goes because it doesn’t go in this special purse around my waist, but in my sock. This special purse that goes around my waist is the best part of the outfit. It’s so nice to have a bag to put my things in; however, my point is that this outfit is not familiar. It’s not technically a part of my heritage. At some point in history, the Evans family left Wales, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and came to the United States, so Ancesty.com would not substantiate my claim to any of these tartans. Maybe the same is true of you. If it is, let me tell you that those of us whose last names do not appear on a tartan still have something miraculous to celebrate today. Today, we are celebrating the McDonalds and the Macfarlanes. We raise up the names of Anderson, Cummings, Duncan, and Hay. We do raise the tartans to recognize these great families who can trace their roots right back to the Scottish Lowlands and the Highlands, yet the preacher before you, who moved to Marietta from Virginia Highlands, has a place in this worship service as well. Today is a celebration for all God’s people because all God’s people have a heritage worth celebrating, especially if, as is true of the Scots among us, some oppressive power tried to take all your traditions away. This worship service is inspired by an old Scottish liturgy that developed during the English occupation. If you’ve seen the movie Braveheart as I have (I’ve seen it like 50 times, but I realize not everyone has.), then remember how hard it was for those people to remain proud of their heritage while living under the thumb of the British Empire. For generations, bagpipes were played in secret rather than out in the open, and the plaids of each family couldn’t be worn in public. Still, the families snuck in just patches of their tartans. Into the churches, they brought squares, small enough to be smuggled into the church, where they were blessed by God in secret during a worship service. So it has been for oppressed people throughout human history. Think about the long hair of the Native American, cut as Cherokee boys and girls were separated from their tribes and forced into schoolhouses where they’d forget the language of their people. Think about the generations who were enslaved in this country. They were kept from learning to read, they forgot the languages of their homelands, and they gathered to worship God in brush arbors and secret places beyond the prying eyes of their captors. Throughout human history, concurring armies have burned drums and books. Ritual dancing was outlawed. Accents have disappeared. Yet these are no scraps of wool snuck into this place of worship. These pipes are not played under the cover of nightfall. Therefore, this worship service is not just a celebration of Scottish heritage; it is also a celebration of God’s justice, which upon the head of the empire has come rolling down. Today, we remember that while they tried – while they tried to break our bagpipes and our spirits, while they banned our tartans and stole our land - justice still came rolling down. We boldly declare it in this worship service, and every worship service because we know that far greater than the power of the empire is the power of God who made heaven and earth. We know that far stronger than the weapon of our oppressor is the mighty hand of God. If the man has you feeling down, If you ever feel discouraged, If you have a boss who doesn’t respect you and your friends put you down, or if your teachers just don’t understand and bullies walk the hall, and everyone around you has already had their growth spurt and life just isn’t fair, look at these tartans that were held in secret but not destroyed, for justice will come rolling down. That’s the theme of today’s service. If we’re doing anything other than rejoicing in God’s justice, then this is just a pep rally in plaid. The prophet Amos spoke of someone who fled from a lion and was met by a bear, or of someone who went into the house and rested a hand against the wall and was bitten by a snake. Do you ever feel that way? Do the powers of sin and death ever get you down? Sometimes, we go to the doctor’s office and hear that we’ve healed from lung cancer while cancer has sprung up some place else. Then, we watch the news and pray for the victims of one tragedy, even though tomorrow there will be another tragedy with another group of victims to pray for. Yet the day is coming when the power of empire, the power of oppression, the power of cancer, even the power of death will be broken, for justice will come rolling down. That’s what today’s worship service is all about. My wife, Sara, reads a lot more than I do. Next to her side of the bed is a stack of books. She must read three books a week. She puts me to shame. Plus, she reads the New York Times cover to cover every morning and does Wordle. Last Friday, she sent me an article about Matthew Perry, who was a star on the TV series Friends. You may have heard that he recently died. You may also have heard that he struggled with alcoholism. That struggle was a primary theme of his memoir, which recently came out. A good friend of his, another actor, named Hank Azaria, remembered him in a guest essay that Sara sent me, and in that article, Hank Azaria described what it was like to go with Matthew Perry to Azaria’s first AA meeting. We went to this very big gathering in Brentwood, California. We walked in, and I swear it seemed there were a thousand people in there. [Matthew] knew the look on my face – daunted. Beyond daunted: demoralized. It’s very hard to imagine how going into a room like this is somehow going to make you want to stop drinking or make you feel better. And he looked at me and said in his Matthew, half-joking, very loving way: “It’s something, isn’t it? God is a bunch of drunks in a room.” That may be a shocking thing to hear, but let me say it a different way. God is there among those who gather for AA meetings. God was there among those oppressed Scottish people. God was there among those enslaved people who gathered together under the cover of shadow to steal away to the brush arbor, or in the time of Roman persecution, among who confessed their faith in the catacombs proclaiming that there is a power greater than death, greater than oppression, greater than tyranny, greater than addiction, greater than cancer, greater than sin. Do not compromise with empire. Empire’s days are numbered. Watching the debates among politicians, you don’t need to settle for the least bad option. Corruption’s days are already numbered. Lift up your eyes to the hills today. Remember from which our help comes. For justice will come rolling down. There is a power stronger than death. There is a power stronger than tyranny. We lifted the tartans, which years ago were but tiny squares of cloth, smuggled in, but I call you today to lift up your head if you are bearing heavy sorrow. Lift up your eyes and see that the sun also rises. Lift up your heart, as justice comes rolling down. Amen.
Thursday, November 9, 2023
Last week, Russell Davis, who is not only a Sunday school teacher at our church but also a Marietta attorney, told me a story of a miracle he was right in the middle of. Russell was representing a woman who had been in a car accident. Many of us have been in car accidents. I’ve been in more than one. The best result of a car accident is that it only ruins your day. The worst result of a car accident is someone loses his life. Russell’s client was in a car accident that resulted in the death of another woman, a grandmother who was a mentor to younger women in her church, who started an international prayer hot-line, and also founded several mission efforts; one, which helped people during the big ups and downs of life, she named the Road to Damascus. You know the Road to Damascus story. It’s told with the most detail in the book of Acts, where Paul, then a persecutor of Christians, is struck blind. This blindness is not a curse, but a step on his spiritual journey where he meets Jesus, Who asks him, “Why do you persecute me?” Blind and helpless, Paul is invited by a disciple named Ananias into his house, where Paul is fed and cared for, which is a great sign of Christian love and hospitality, for Ananias knew Paul to be, not the saint we now know in Scripture, but one who arrested Ananias’s friends, terrorized his community, and helped to stone one of his fellow disciples. But back to the miracle in Russel’s courtroom. He was defending the driver who lived, while the family of the woman who died were on the other side of the courtroom. They were visibly distraught, not only mourning the loss of a saintly woman, but they were angry, and anger needs a place to go, so they were angry with the woman who caused the accident. Russell, being a saintly man himself, could relate. According to him, the key to retaining your humanity in the legal profession is the ability to feel someone else’s pain. Russell felt the pain of this grieving family, but in his client’s defense, he said, “If your mother were still with us, she would be among the first to support and care for my client, to hug her and comfort her and let her know it was all OK because she is in a better place. My client is broken-hearted over this accident that took your mother’s life, but what I want you to recognize is that this accident did not happen on Memorial Drive in Decatur, Georgia, as the police report reads. Considering the character of the deceased and the change in my client, this accident occurred on the Road to Damascus.” Not every closing argument turns into a sermon, but that one did, and truly, that accident occurred on the Road to Damascus, for just as Paul received grace from Ananias, so Russell’s client received grace from that deceased woman’s family. Christ was also there in that courtroom, for, inspired by his closing argument, the mourning family went from thoughts of punishment and revenge to inviting Russell’s client to church. They provided her with a ride to get there. When she arrived in her Uber, they welcomed her in. They embraced her as she arrived, and just as it happened for Paul, Russell’s client was baptized and became a member of that family of faith. As a preacher of the Gospel, I have the honor of being told stories like this often enough. Some call such moments coincidence; I call it God at work in the world, but on this All Saints’ Sunday, think with me, not only about how Jesus walks beside us, but how the memory of one woman’s faithfulness influenced events in a courtroom, even after she died tragically in that car accident. Think with me about those who are robed in white. Who have come out of the great ordeal already. Who will hunger and thirst no more, for they are before the throne of God in that place where God will wipe every tear from their eyes. This morning, I call on you to remember the saints and how they lived. I don’t just mean, “Remember with me Bill Fogarty’s smile, which was warm enough to melt snow, or John Wells and his bowties, which are worth remembering.” What I’m talking about today is how, at his funeral last December, Bill Fogarty’s daughter Jean read from 2nd Timothy: As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. My friends, we have so much to learn from a man who lived in such a way that his daughter would remember him this way. Sometimes, I worry that at my funeral, Lily and Cece will say, “When he came home stressed, we knew it because he would use his preacher voice in the house.” If those who have gone on could speak to us today, how would they tell us to live? Would they tell us we worry too much? That we spend too much money on stuff that’s only going to gather dust? Today, we remember those like Judy Williams, who so looked forward to her granddaughter’s high school graduation that it’s all she talked about, as though her granddaughter’s graduation were the most important thing in the world. Was she wrong? Remember Bill Paden with me this morning. If you walk into the choir room, you’ll see a plaque on the wall listing those members of the choir who sang with our choir for fifty years. There are only three names on there. Bill Paden is one of them, and today, his grandson Karl is in the choir loft following in his footsteps. Think about how they used their time, and if they had the time that we have, how would they use it? How many cards would Flora Speed send if she had more time to tell people how much she loved them? What would Bob and Better Bomar do with a little more time? Would those two, who died within months of each other, not tell us, who are married, to spend our time loving one another well? What would they do with more time? Think with me of Karen Davis, who fed every cat in her neighborhood, or Don Mills, who from his hospital bed at AG Rhodes told his friends how much he loved them, or Skip Zehrung, whose children and grandchildren remembered him so well in their eulogies because he knew where to invest his time, not in front of the TV, but in people. Today, we remember those who have gone on. Faith Adamson, Don Goldberg, Jo Johnson, Doris Kitchens, Bill Majoros, Annel Martin, Anne Ray, Carol Watkins, and Ron Young. How did they live? And how would they have us live? I can just see Bill Majoros driving Wanda Reese to Thursday Bible Study. I can almost hear Jean Reed’s voice, as she told me stories of her days as a code breaker during World War II. I think about my friend Leo. Leo would invite me over for lunch. A couple years ago, I developed a sensitivity to beef and pork. He’d invite me for lunch, and I’d have to tell him that I was on a special diet, so he invited me to his house where he’d prepared a spread of chicken salad, shrimp salad, crab salad, all beef and pork free, for such was the hospitality that he showed me, and such is the hospitality that he has now received. My friends, we do not know what will be. We only know who will be there with us, who will welcome us when we get there. Know that the Great Cloud of Witnesses goes on before us, and they will welcome us there when our time comes. Following their example, let us embody the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ until that time comes. Amen.
Thursday, November 2, 2023
Some people love rules. The Pharisees, featured in our second Scripture lesson from the Gospel of Matthew, loved rules. They were one of the major religious groups in the time of Jesus. Along with the Sadducees, the Scribes, and the Zealots, they were one of the major groups within the Jewish religious community who competed for influence and converts. They each make their appearance in the Gospels, and we know that these established religious groups were intimidated by Jesus, so they tried to trap Him with their questions. On numerous occasions, the Gospels show that Jesus outsmarted them. Our second Scripture lesson is just one example. It began: When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. I may have told you the best way to remember the difference between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Just remember that the Sadducees didn’t believe in life after death. They were such adherents to the teachings of Moses, who failed to mention the afterlife, that they didn’t believe in heaven, so they were sad, you see. The Pharisees, on the other hand, loved the law. They wanted to follow, not just the Ten Commandments, but every law that tradition passed down. They loved to follow all those rules because they felt the rules ensured that people would be treated fairly, so they were fair, you see. I learned that in seminary. In today’s Gospel lesson, this lawyer, who was a rule-loving Pharisee, wanted to test Jesus, and so he asked Him a question, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” To a Pharisee, choosing the greatest law would be like picking your favorite child. He and the other Pharisees just couldn’t do it. “How could you love one commandment more than another?” they wondered, while Jesus has no problem answering the question. He said: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. That’s what Jesus says. You’ve heard it before. It’s an often-quoted verse that’s not just in the Gospel of Matthew, but also in Mark and Luke, yet the difference here in the Gospel of Matthew is that He follows up this famous answer with a question of His own directed towards the Pharisees: What do you think of the Messiah? He asked them. Whose son is he? They said to him, “the son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David, by the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’ If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” In other words, Jesus is trying to help the Pharisees see whom they are talking with. They were waiting for the son of David to appear. They thought that they knew what to look for in the promised Messiah, yet they were looking right over Him, interrogating the Messiah rather than revering Him. You know all this already. While it came as a surprise to them, it comes as no surprise to you to hear that Jesus is Lord, nor does it come as a surprise to hear Him say that the entire law may be simplified to “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself,” only think about this with me: If the Messiah is the One who simplifies the rules, who makes it all so complicated? If God’s Messiah is the One who summarizes all the law down to love God and love neighbor, who is clinging so tightly to all the other standards of society? There’s a scene I’ll always remember in the TV show Seinfeld, where the main character, Jerry, goes to visit his parents, who have just moved from Manhattan to a retirement community in Florida called Del Bocca Vista. While Jerry and Elaine are visiting them there, she can’t sleep because they put her on the fold-out couch and that bar is right in her back; plus, they won’t turn on the air conditioning even though it’s Florida. Later, when a Del Bocca Vista neighbor dies, Jerry’s friend Kramer decides to retire down in Florida right next to Jerry’s parents. Jerry’s dad pushes Kramer to run for president of the neighborhood association. The campaign is going great until Kramer gets caught walking through the neighborhood clubhouse without his shoes on. As Kramer tries to understand why such a small thing would cause his campaign to go up in flames, Jerry says, “These people work and wait their whole lives to move down here, sit in the heat, pretend it’s not hot, and enforce these rules.” Some people love rules. The Pharisees loved rules. The residents of Del Boca Vista loved rules. And there’s a little bit of Pharisee in all of us. There are rules and regulations that we all cling to. We all have standards of morality and decency. We have codes of conduct, standards of behavior. There are things that we do, and there are things we wouldn’t dare do. “No shirt, no shoes, no service,” is a rule so basic in our society that it goes without saying everywhere outside the state of Alabama. Then, there are commandments: Thou shalt not murder. Thou shalt not commit adultery. These are good rules. They are life-giving standards of behavior, yet we must allow the Messiah to help us use these rules. Otherwise, they are confined to our understanding. Take the fourth commandment for example: Honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy and consider with me how we use it. We hear that commandment and say to ourselves, “Got it. Set Sunday apart,” only does the commandment set a limit or a minimum requirement? Would God not also have us honor our Mondays and our Tuesdays? Are we not called to love the Lord our God on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays? Does God not love us every day of the week and each moment of our lives? We hear these divine mandates from Scripture, and we interpret God’s rules through our human understanding, while Jesus, the Messiah, says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.” Sometimes, we use rules to set limits and to draw lines; yet, if the way we use these rules creates a barrier to love, are we worshiping the rules or are we following the Lord? Following the Lord may require more than the laws or human culture stipulate, for the love of God has no limit. Right? OK. Then let’s think together about human culture and how what Jesus says in Matthew challenges some of what we do. Last week, the County Commission was discussing a statement on the conflict in Israel. It turned out to be a divisive conversation that resulted in a follow-up meeting before a big crowd last Wednesday night because the first draft of the statement declared Cobb County’s absolute support of Israel. That makes sense, right? We love Israel. Standing with the Jewish people and the nation of Israel is a part of who our nation is. Defending the cause of one of the most persecuted minority groups in the world is a part of who we are, so when we hear about the attack on Israel, we want to show our support. We want to stand with Israel, supporting them as they mourn the loss of innocent lives, as they call for the release of captives and an end to terrorism. However, some residents of Cobb County had a problem with the statement the County Commission was working on. Presbyterians born in Nazareth and Muslims from Palestine who now live here in Cobb County asked their commissioners: Why would you limit your support to the people of Israel? Do the residents of our county not mourn the loss of Palestinian children? Or does our concern have limits? Sometimes our concern does have limits. Sometimes, with our rules and regulations, we put in place barriers for whom we’ll love and whom we won’t. However, if we look to Scripture, while we clearly see God’s love for the people of Israel, we also see that God’s love does not stop there. That’s what the book of Jonah is all about. Jonah doesn’t understand how God could love the Ninevites. That’s why he doesn’t want to go and preach to them, yet God declares, “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left?” You see, it’s human tendency to put a barrier on love. It’s a human tendency to love one group and to hate another, while we must expect that just as God has wept over the innocent Israeli children killed by Palestinian bombs, so also, has God wept over the innocent Palestinian children killed by Israeli bombs because God’s love does not respect the boundaries that we draw. While we may limit our support and our concern, God’s love is for all of Creation. This is simply a truth that we must accept and may loving as God loves be a goal to which we aspire, for when it comes to transforming the world, there is no force more likely to transform society than love. Last Tuesday, my wife, Sara, sent me an article from Fox 5 Atlanta about a crisis dog who helps people. K-9 officer Barney and his handler, Paul Hill, got a call that a woman had locked herself in a bathroom and was threatening to end her life. When Officer Hill and his canine companion, Barney, arrived, the woman had moved from the bathroom and was lying on a bed, visibly distraught. Many of us, when we see a woman acting so strangely, would turn and walk away, yet without a second thought, Barney hopped up next to her and wiggled his way into her arms. He laid there peacefully, helping the woman to snuggle with him and relax. Soon, she was responding to the officers. Then, she was getting the help she needed, but it started not with threats, but with contact. Her healing began as a dog offered her his love on the worst day of her life. My friends, I don’t know the answer to so many of the problems that we face these days. I don’t know the answer to the conflict in Israel/Palestine, but I do know this: Years ago, I was a chaplain intern at the Metro State Women’s Prison, and I met a woman who was terrified she was going to hell. She’d been abused, and, in her dreams, she returned to this dark place with fire and daemons. It was a place she’d been before on the worst night of her life, and she never wanted to return there. I remember holding her hand through the flap in a steel door and saying, “Hell is a place you’ve been before, and I can’t believe that the God I know in Jesus Christ would send you back there again.” I’ll never forget how she cried as I said those words. I’ll always remember watching as the love of God set her free. On the other hand, shame keeps so many locked up and imprisoned. Sometimes, after violating the rules, people punish themselves so severely. I wonder if we punish ourselves more for breaking the rules than God does. If it hasn’t happened for you already, today, may the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, set you free, and may you be set loose on this broken world to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” Let there be no barrier to your love, for there is no barrier to God’s love for you. Amen.
Tuesday, October 24, 2023
On Monday mornings, I often wish for a redo of the previous day’s sermon. More often than not, I wake up wishing that I could change or rephrase something that I’d said the day before. No doubt, the same thing will happen tomorrow. Surely between now and tomorrow morning, something will happen. Maybe one of you will say the perfect thing that I wish I would have said, or will ask me the perfect question on your way out of here, a question that I hadn’t even thought to address. Maybe this afternoon, you’ll email me, and I’ll think to myself, “Had she asked me that question on Saturday, I might have written a much better sermon for Sunday morning.” So it happened after the last sermon that I preached on the boy Samuel. I preached that sermon two weeks ago. In today’s second Scripture lesson, he has grown into a man, but in the passage that we read together two weeks ago, he was only a boy sleeping on the floor of the Holy of Holies when the voice of God woke him up. You likely know about the Holy of Holies. It was the most sacred place in the Temple where the Ark of God was kept. The Ark, as the Rev. Cassie Waits told us last Sunday, held holy relics from the time of Moses. In it were the pieces of the Ten Commandments, the priest Aaron’s staff, as well as a golden jar containing manna from the wilderness. The Ark was also God’s throne. The people believed that God would come and sit on the Ark as a king in the throne room. Why, then, would the boy Samuel have been using that space as his bedroom? That’s the question Harriette Majoros asked me the Monday after I preached my last sermon. It’s a wonderful question, and I want to take a moment today to try and answer it because this question will help us to better understand the prophet Samuel and the impact he made on the nation of Israel. Here’s what we must all understand about the prophet Samuel: Samuel left Israel better than he found it. Like a boy scout who came upon a mess that he didn’t make, he cleaned things up and made things better. Even though the mess wasn’t his making in the first place, he left things in Israel better than he found them. When it came to the Temple when Samuel was a boy, the Temple was not the revered and respected space it should have been. Temple practice had devolved. The priesthood was corrupt. That the Holy of Holies had turned into a boy’s bedroom is a good indication of how far standards had fallen in the Temple and among the priesthood, so imagine with me what the religious life of that nation had become. In those days before Samuel, things were bad when it came to the maintenance of divine worship. The spiritual life of the people lacked integrity. The priest Eli was in charge, and he was known to be pious and kind; however, both his sons were known to be scoundrels. Whenever anyone offered a sacrifice, Eli’s sons would grab a fork. That’s literally what the Bible says: 1st Samuel 2: 12: Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests. When anyone offered sacrifice, [they] would come while the meat was boiling, with a three-pronged fork in [their] hand, and [they] would thrust it into the pan, or kettle, or caldron, or pot; all that the fork brought up [they] would take for [themselves]. Furthermore, when women came to the Temple, they faced harassment from these sons who abused their power, used their office for personal gain, and when the nation went to war with the Philistines, Eli’s sons thought that bringing the Ark out to the battle front might turn the tide, giving Israel an advantage. Instead, the army retreated, Eli’s sons were killed, and the Ark was captured by the heathen Philistines. I tell you this today because I want you to understand how things were in Israel before the time of Samuel. I want you to know that Samuel left Israel better than he found it. Before Samuel, things were bad. Why did he sleep in the Holy of Holies as a boy? It’s because things at the Temple were a mess. There was corruption in the priesthood. Things in the government weren’t much better. We hear in the book of Judges about the government of Israel before the time of Samuel. If you know anything about the book of Judges, it’s likely the very last verse: In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes. How does that sound? Some might say, “That sounds familiar.” You could say that, but I also want you to hear that it was nearly chaos, and what you need to know about Samuel is that he is the bridge between that time of the Judges, those days of near chaos and occasional heroism, and the reign of King David. What you need to know about Samuel is that he reformed the Temple and the nation, leaving things in Israel far better than he found them, thanks be to God, but hear this account of Samuel and know that we are not the first nation to experience good times and bad times. The 21st Century is not the first chapter in human history when good people wanted to throw up their hands in disgust and disappointment. Now is not the first age in need of religious renewal. Samuel stepped onto the stage and things got better. Thanks be to God. Yet to truly get his beloved nation on the right course, there was something else that he needed to do. He did something that we all should do after dedicating ourselves and our days to service. After improving things in his nation and at the Temple, he listened to the voice of God again as God called him to consider who would lead after he was gone. Having run his race in faith, God asked him, “To whom will you pass the baton?” Having served the Lord faithfully, “What will you do to prevent things from going backward once you’ve died?” Samuel lived a life worthy of our remembrance, but look with me today to our second Scripture lesson and notice the greatest thing he did: Answering God’s call again, Samuel anointed David. This is a beautiful thing, to pass the work on to the next generation. My friend Mike Velardi remembers the Rev. Dr. Joan Gray asking him repeatedly, “Mike, who’s behind you? Who will keep things going?” Samuel anointed David. Obeying God’s call, the work that God began in Samuel continued with David so that Israel’s greatest days were not in the past but in the future. Think of these things with me today and remember how important it is, not just for us to do our best, but for us to have some faith in the next generation. Today, I remember the words of billionaire Warren Buffett: The perfect inheritance is enough money so that children feel they can do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing. Think about that with me. How can we help our children to believe that they can do anything? How can we help them to answer the call of God on their lives? How can we show them that just as God called us to live for a higher purpose and to find deeper meaning, so also does God call them to do more than entertain themselves on their phones? Speaking of inheritance and money, I remember not ever knowing how much my parents gave to this church. Money wasn’t something that anyone in my family ever talked about. Was it the same in your family? I once asked about my father’s salary, and my mom acted as though I’d just asked to investigate his underwear drawer. Money was not something that we talked about, ever. Yet more recently, my dad told me that he once received a call from the session, where an elder thanked him for being a substantial financial contributor to the church. To hear that his was one of the larger gifts came as a great surprise, and it also embarrassed him because in my house we didn’t talk about money. However, it was good for me to hear that. Hearing what my father gave this church provided enough information for me to understand that being a part of a church requires a certain level of financial commitment. Keeping this place going doesn’t just happen, and you don’t have to be a millionaire to make a difference. Likewise, I remember hearing as a kid that Dr. James O. Speed, then the Senior Pastor, tithed a full 10% of his income, and if the church needed it and his household could afford it, he would give even more. My friends, I want you to know that I do the same thing. 10% of what you pay me goes right back into this church. I learned that from my father. I learned that from Jim Speed. I learned that it is possible to do something powerful with what God has given me, and I want my children to learn the same thing because it’s not enough for me to leave this place better than I found it. We must pass the tradition of generosity to the next generation. Having answered God’s call ourselves, we must teach others to hear His voice and to follow, that they might know the joy of giving to something that is worth believing in. First Presbyterian Church of Marietta will soon be 200 years old. The Gospel will be no less necessary in 200 more years than it was 200 years ago. May our example now shape that future, and may the future be brighter than our yesterdays. Let us show our children and our grandchildren how it’s done. Let us set an example for them to follow. While I was writing this sermon, Denise Lobodinski texted me a quote: “The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.” That’s a good one, isn’t it? I’m thankful she sent it to me on Thursday rather than Monday. Consider with me how important your example is, and what a powerful moment it was for me as a kid to line up with this entire congregation and to walk down that aisle to make a pledge following the example of my Sunday school teachers, pastors, youth advisors, and parents. This morning, the children will be watching us. They’ll see us as we invest in this church. As we invest in her future. As we give a portion of what God has given us to make ministry possible for another year, may they see in us the kind of generosity that not only ensures this place will make it another year, but may they hear us encourage them to believe that through them God will do more than we ever dreamed. It’s true that Samuel left Israel better than he found it, but David was that nation’s greatest king. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the children who will grow up to reform this nation and revitalize the Church are sitting right in here with us. What they need from us today is our example and our blessing. Friends, let us show them how to follow the Lord, that they might also hear His voice and answer His call. Amen.
Thursday, October 12, 2023
The first time I really paid attention to our second Scripture lesson, this story of the boy Samuel sleeping on the Temple floor, I was a camper at Camp Cherokee. No doubt, many of you remember Camp Cherokee. It was a Presbyterian camp on Lake Allatoona. A few here today were campers there. Many others in this church remember their kids going. I was first a camper, then a counselor, and as a 9- or 10-year-old camper, I had the chance to act out this story for an evening vespers service. I was chosen for the starring role of the boy Samuel, so I know this story well. I embodied it. Is that like saying, “I’m not a doctor, but I played one on TV?” I’m not an Old Testament scholar like Dr. Brennan Breed, but during the chapel service at camp Cherokee, I pretended to be Samuel asleep on the Temple floor, and ever since then, I’ve loved this Scripture lesson. While I played Samuel, one friend played old Eli, another was the voice of God. What I remember most was waking up Old Eli. I thought it would add some punch to the story if, the third time I heard the voice, I ad-libbed a little bit. I said something like, “Enough of this, you old fogey. I’m trying to sleep in here. Quit calling me.” I’ve remembered that. Then, in the youth group here, we’d sing the song that this second Scripture lesson inspired. We’ll sing it again at the end of the service: “Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night.” As a young person who dreamed of being a preacher, singing that hymn with the youth group, I was always hoping that it might be true: that God would call me by name and want me to do something. It’s one thing, though, to hear a voice, and it’s another thing to know that it’s God calling. That’s why I love this second Scripture lesson because here I see that even Samuel who was sleeping on the Temple floor, the very place he had been raised to know that God lived, didn’t believe that God would ever call him to do anything. Four times God had to call him. The first three times, Samuel assumed it was Eli, even though he was sleeping on the Temple floor where God was known to live, even though he was sleeping right beside the Ark of the Covenant that was known to be God’s throne. Think about that. We imagine that the heroes of the Bible were all like Charlton Heston, playing the role of Moses. In that old movie, Charlton Heston looked on that sea with confidence. He just dared that water not to divide, sure that the people would survive and positive that God was at work maybe because he already knew the end of the story, yet the Bible tells us that Moses led the people through the sea like a flock of sheep. Have you ever led a flock of sheep through what was once a body of water? Sheep are scared. So are we. So was Moses. So was Samuel. Hear then, in our second Scripture lesson, a lesson about faith and how faith is actually passed down from one generation to the next. Hear the account in the Bible and forget about how Hollywood tells it, for as faith is passed down, it’s not always pretty. It’s often terrifying. God’s people doubt and question. When God speaks, even Samuel had to learn how to listen. Let us give thanks for Eli today, for Eli taught Samuel how to do it. Our second Scripture lesson began: “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out.” The lamp of God had not yet gone out. The lamp of God had not yet gone out. “Not yet” is one of those great phrases. Our second Scripture lesson repeats it three times. Eli had not yet lost his eyesight, but it had begun to grow dim. He wasn’t blind, not yet. The lamp of God had not yet gone out. It was flickering, but the light was not out. Not yet. Of course, as Eli aged and considered what would happen to the Temple when he was gone, he wondered who would maintain the worship life of his nation, and he looked to his sons. They were still alive. They hadn’t proved themselves to be completely useless. Not yet., but the light was flickering, so surely as Eli lay waiting for sleep or death to take him, he worried about what would happen after he was gone. Who would take over? Who would carry on the tradition? Who would remind the people of God’s mighty hand that acts to change the course of history? In those days of Eli, visons were not widespread. The word of the Lord was rare in those days, Scripture tells us. The light was flickering. Would it go out? Who would carry on? Much of what our ancestors cherished has been lost, hasn’t it? I mentioned Camp Cherokee. I loved that place. My sister really loved that place. There’s no place on this earth where I’ve seen her ever happier. After going to camp there for summers in elementary school, we both became counselors. The summer we were counselors together was probably the summer we were the closest. That whole summer we were together, but now that camp has closed. It’s gone. The light has gone out, so also has the light gone out on all kinds of things to which we might say “Good riddance.” The light has gone out on rotary phones. The light has gone out on fax machines. The light has gone out on segregation, poll taxes, and pantyhose, but let us recognize today where the light is still burning brightly. Where has faith been passed successfully down from one generation to the next? What has God, by His mercy, by His providence, by His divine plan, nurtured, preserved, and sustained? This church. I heard two weeks ago that only three members of our church are left who can trace their roots to those 12 families who started First Presbyterian Church back in 1835. 12 families started this church; their descendants have moved away or moved on. Only 3 members are left who can trace their family trees back to the original 12 families, while every person here today is blessed by their legacy. Like Samuel, who was adopted, taken in by Eli, every person here today has claimed her inheritance for her own, for while Eli’s sight was growing dim, God still has a vision for the future. While Eli’s sight was growing dim and while the light may have flickered from time to time, consider with me how brightly the light burns here today. For 60 years, our preschool has been educating kids. Today, there are more students than ever before, and even while our preschool director, Betsy Sherwood, has created space for all these students in rooms that have never been used as classrooms before, there’s still a waiting list of 100. Only how did it start? It started with a dream. It started with a prayer. It started with a nudge from God, yet now the light shines brightly. Likewise, for more than 30 years, our afterschool program, born amid a Sunday school class whose members dared to believe they could do something to nurture underserved kids, has made a difference to generations of children. I saw a picture on Facebook of one, a child who came to our church for afterschool care who just started her senior year at Notre Dame University. Last week, I went to Hickory Hills Elementary School with Buck Buchanan to deliver dictionaries on behalf of the Rotary Club, and kids in those classes recognized me as Pastor Joe. “It’s me, Jordie,” one said. “Pastor Joe, Pastor Joe, I go to Club 3:30 at your church,” they said. One in 10 students at that school has been coming here for more than 30 years, but how did it start? It started with a dream in a Sunday school class. It started with a prayer. It started with a nudge from God as the light began to flicker, yet now it burns so brightly that every member of the school board knows about it, so consider with me this morning that hearing and responding to God’s voice is not always easy. It’s not always the way Charlton Heston made it look in the movies. It’s more like the boy Samuel who needs help believing that God would call him by name. For him to believe that God would call him by name required Eli, one who remembered what it looks like when God is at work. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” During the pandemic, I received a phone call from a member of the Marietta City Schools staff asking if we’d like to distribute food from the Atlanta Food Bank. Had Charlton Heston been the one to receive the call, it would have been a confident and clear “yes,” but Charlton Heston didn’t receive the call. I did, and when I heard about this opportunity, the first thing I did was doubt that it was a good idea, yet my friends, I’m the pastor of a church where a group of mothers felt the nudge to start a preschool and a Sunday school class worried about latchkey kids and dared to believe that God might be calling them to do something about it, and so while I was doubtful, while I wasn’t certain, I asked a couple members of the staff to look into it. One of them was Cassie Waits, who dared to believe that we might pull it off. Next thing you know, millions of meals have been distributed, and thousands of families have been fed. Each Tuesday morning, so many churches members sort through the produce. Each Tuesday afternoon, they distribute the food to the hundreds of cars who line up through our parking lots. I remember in the early days of the program, a neighboring church member called me. I was worried he called to complain about the cars who were blocking traffic on his way home. Instead, he asked, “How far would $2,000 go?” Here me say to you today, God is at work in this place. God is at work here. It’s not always pretty. It’s not always easy to see. That’s because God doesn’t always speak in thunderstorms and earthquakes. Sometimes, the voice of God is heard in that still, small voice, which might be His or might just be the old fogey sleeping in the next room over. We don’t always know. It’s not always clear. Still, I want you to dare to believe something with me this morning. I want you to dare to believe that God is calling you to do something with your life, with your resources, with your time, for Christianity is no spectator sport, and we are not called to sleep through the night quietly when we hear about the brokenness of our world. Our only recourse is not despair, but to wake up and hear His voice, to listen, to do something, to respond to the call, to walk out on the water though we might sink, to reach out to our neighbor though she might tell us to keep on walking, for God is at work here. God is still speaking, but you and I must learn to listen and to say, “Here I am. Send me.” “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” My friends, we’re right here in October, and soon, if you haven’t already, you’ll end up with a pledge card in your hand. As you look at it, I want you to ask yourself, “What might God do through me if I were willing?” “What might God do in this church if I were more willing to give of myself?” I’ve been trying to listen. I’ve been trying to follow. I’ve been singing that song for so long, “Here I am, Lord, Is it I, Lord,” just hoping that it might be me God was calling because I wanted to be like Samuel. I wanted God to use me for a higher purpose. If you’re the same way, then dare to respond with your whole heart this stewardship season, for when we are willing, God will work through us to do miraculous things. The light has not gone out. Visions may not be widespread these days, but this church has one. Answer the call. Step out in faith. God is still speaking, and God is at work here in those who are willing. Halleluiah. Amen.
Wednesday, September 27, 2023
Perfectionism in Relationships, a sermon based in Philippians 1: 21-30, preached on September 24, 2023
It’s been a sad week in Marietta, Georgia. On Monday, after her cross-country practice, a high school student named Liv Teverino died in a single-car accident on Burnt Hickory. You may have read about it in the paper. Our whole town has been in shock. Many students at Marietta High School have been feeling this loss profoundly. Prayers for her parents and her brothers have been lifted from every place of worship in our town. It seems like everyone has been talking about the accident, and everyone has been talking about her. In the wake of her death, what have people been saying about Liv Teverino? She was an outstanding student, but no one has really mentioned her grades in detail. She ran cross country, but I don’t know how fast she ran a mile. No one is talking about the kind of car she drove, the brand of shoes on her feet, or who she was going with to the homecoming dance. When you read about Liv, it’s almost all about the way she made people feel. It’s almost all about relationships, and when tragedy strikes, it’s often this way because death reframes things. When tragedy breaks into our lives, it changes our focus to what matters most, and what matters most in the end is love. When we realize how fragile our lives are, so much of what we spend time obsessing over suddenly feels trivial, so, while I have known many students who cared deeply about their grades, I have yet to see anyone’s ACT, SAT, or grade point average in an obituary. Never have I heard anyone’s dress size or body weight mentioned in a eulogy, and yet we spend so much time thinking about the way we look. When our time comes, what is vanity will be forgotten. What will remain is the way we made people feel. Knowing that, how will you live? Jesus told a parable about a man who was walking down the road when he was attacked, robbed, and left for dead. There he was, naked and dying on the side of the road, but up walked a priest. Surely, the priest would stop and help, but he didn’t; he kept on walking. Maybe he had a meeting to get to. After the priest came a well-born man from the tribe of Levi. He was born and raised to perform the work of holiness at the Temple, only it must have been his day to burn the incense because he walked right by the wounded man and went on his way. Finally, up came a Samaritan man. The Samaritan man, the lowest type of person on the societal totem pole. He’s the janitor, the garbage collector, the illegal immigrant, the convicted felon; just fill in “kind of person it is socially acceptable to make jokes about,” and you’ve got it, yet he’s the one who stops. He’s the one who put the wounded man on his own horse and takes him to get the help he needs. Knowing that, how will you live? Knowing that tragedy has a way of showing us that what matters most is not our ability to show up to meetings on time or how well thought of we are, how will you live? Knowing that what matters the most to Jesus is our willingness to stop and help when someone needs us, how will you live? It’s the way we treat each other that matters. It’s our relationships that matter. Still, relationships are hard. My favorite proverb in the Bible is Proverbs 21: 9: It’s better to live on a corner of the roof than inside the house with a quarrelsome spouse. That’s right there in the Bible. Look it up. It’s really in there, and it’s in there because it’s true. Our relationships matter most, but our relationships also require work, so, while some spend all kinds of time working for perfection in academics or athletics, and some spend all their time thinking about money or how well-decorated their home is, and while I understand wrapped up in all kinds of senseless pursuits, if we’re going to work for perfection in something, let it be in our relationships. Does that make sense? Of course, that’s easy to say while it’s harder to do, especially when we spend little time thinking about how to do it. I recently read an opinion column by David Brooks, where he said that talking with young adults has recently made him concerned. He noticed how animatedly young adults talk about their career prospects, having spent considerable time thinking about what they’ll do and how they’ll meet their vocational goals, yet they haven’t spent much of any time thinking about with whom they will spend their future. Relationships matter most in the end, and so the Apostle Paul, who in our second Scripture lesson writes from the perspective of his own death, has his relationship with the church in Philippi on his mind. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever see the people he is writing to, yet he clearly loves them, and so he says, Whether I ever see you again or not, “whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” What he means by worthy of the gospel of Christ is to “strive together as one for the faith of the gospel without being frightened.” Fear and isolation go hand in hand, don’t they? The more afraid of rejection we are, the less we work for relationships. The less we work for relationships, the more isolated we become. The more isolated, the more frightened of the world we are. What are we to do about these twin scourges in our modern society: fear and isolation? A new member of our church staff, Jauana Eidelwein, works with the kids in Club 3:30, our afterschool program. She’s also in seminary. She’s been doing a wonderful job, and she’s been promoting our church so well. Last week, she invited her manicurist to church. She came, along with all her family, just last Sunday, but to my point, a couple weeks ago, she gave me this quote, and I’ve been repeating it ever since: Safety is not the absence of threat. Safety is the presence of community. Write that one down. It’s worth repeating. Safety is not the absence of threat. Safety is the presence of community. If all that matters in the end are not our professional accomplishments but our relationships, and if Jesus is more interested in seeing us care for each other than He is in us making it to the temple on time, and if the thing that truly makes us feel safe is the presence of community, why aren’t we working harder at building healthy relationships? Honestly, why would anyone say, “I can’t make it to dinner tonight because I have to work late” when dinner is what’s going to make him feel safe and loved? Why would anyone slander her friend to beat her out of the promotion, when the promotion will be forgotten while the relationship will be remembered? If what makes us the happiest, makes us feel the safest, and pleases the One we claim to follow is the way we treat each other, why do people pay more for wedding photographers than for premarital counseling? I don’t know. If that last statement sounded a little resentful, forgive me. I have so much trouble posing for pictures that I get a little self-conscious around wedding photographers. My wife, Sara, once wondered how many wedding photographers have captured me with my eyes closed. She can just imagine some couple whose wedding I officiated looking at their old wedding pictures on down the road with their grandchildren, and some bright-eyed granddaughter wants to know why the preacher looks like he just woke up from a nap. Perfection in photographs won’t matter in the end, right? I hope that’s right. After all, you don’t have to be perfect to be in a perfect relationship. In fact, accepting each other’s imperfection is most of what makes relationships work. Reading Paul, notice how much he talks about his struggles. This morning, we hear him talk again about his suffering, which makes me think that admitting that we need help because we aren’t perfect and asking for help is so much of what makes relationships perfect. Meanwhile, we hide our imperfections. We try to get everything just right. We judge our waiters based on how well they take our order and deliver it correctly, as though the perfect meal, the most nourishing meal, was the meal where everything went perfectly. Last Wednesday morning, I was listening to a podcast that Catherine Breed, our Director of Children & Youth Faith Formation, sent me. It was about a restaurant in Japan where the service is notoriously awful. Normally, that’s a bad thing. Good service matters, and at this restaurant, customers rarely get what they ordered. At this restaurant, if you order sushi, you might end up with dumplings. If you order steak, you end up with miso soup. A glass of water might make it to your table having been drunk already by your waiter, who might or might not bring your order to the table next to you because every member of the waitstaff at this restaurant suffers from dementia. That’s not the kind of restaurant we usually look for, but what if we’ve been looking for the wrong thing? What if we have it all wrong? What if our culture of high achievement is only pushing us apart? My friends, perfection in academics, athletics, beauty, or vocation is unattainable. It’s also boring. Emily Adams left the 8:30 service and told me I was right about that. Perfect is boring, she said, having gone to a baseball game where the pitcher pitched a perfect game, which is an accomplishment that’s worth celebrating, though it’s not very fun to watch. Nothing happens. When we reveal our imperfect, broken hearts, miracles happen. Last Tuesday morning, the morning after Liv Teverino’s death, I went to Marietta High School and saw crowds of broken-hearted kids. Not a one of them was alone in her grief. Not a one. In the end, relationships are what matter most, so build better relationships, and build them with the people you love by being bold enough to reveal your imperfection and by tolerating theirs. Amen.