Friday, May 20, 2022

The World Turned Right-Side Up

Scripture Lessons: Psalm 148 and Revelation 21: 1-6 Sermon Title: The World Turned Right-side Up Preached on May 15, 2022 I love this passage from Revelation because in it is a description of the new Heaven and the new earth. The holy city, the new Jerusalem, comes down out of Heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. In other words, here is the promise that God turns the world right-side up, which is good news for us today because some days, many days, most days, it feels as though the world has been turned upside down. Does the world ever feel that way to you? Just the other day, our friend and neighbor Linda Spears, who has been volunteering at our food distribution ministry, told me about her grandfather, who made a career out of selling mules. He was the man to see when it came time to plow the field. For years and years, he knew how to make a living. His life made sense. Then John Deere tractors came to town, and his way of life was entirely disrupted. Have you ever felt as though your world were coming together like a puzzle out on your kitchen table, when all of a sudden, life comes along to scatter the pieces? Sometimes, our world is like a puzzle, and not just a 1,000-piece puzzle newly bought, but more like the kind you bought at a yard sale, so at least half the pieces are to a different puzzle, and the picture on the box doesn’t match what seems to be coming together. Take Polk Street or Mountain View Road for example. John Hills walked into my study the other day, and he says, “Joe, did the city of Marietta get a buy-1-get-10-free deal on stop signs recently?” These streets, up until those stop signs, I could have driven blindfolded. Now, all of a sudden, a stop sign has materialized out of nowhere. Likewise, I read the paper, and it describes an unfamiliar world. Just last Wednesday, I read that the Braves game will air on Apple TV or the Peacock app. Does everyone in here even know what that even means? Everything changes. Case in point: I received an email recently pointing out how there was a time when only rich people had automobiles. Everyone else had horses. Now, everyone has a car, and only rich people have horses. From time to time, the world turns upside down. Maybe you remember listening to baseball games on the radio; now we’ll watch them on our computers. More than that, columnist Dick Yarbrough reminded us that our copies of the Marietta Daily Journal will no longer be tossed on our driveways but sent through the mail. He looked back on his life, remembering the good old days when a group of kids would gather each afternoon on a street corner with bikes at the ready waiting for a truck to arrive with a bundle of newspapers that they’d roll, place in their bags, and would throw onto doorsteps or into bushes nearby the doorsteps. I was never a paperboy, but a newspaper in the mail feels like heresy. Of course, I don’t mean to be so hard on Otis Brumby III, our local publisher. I grew up playing football in his front yard. I’m sure he’s doing his best. We all are, but it’s hard when the world feels turned upside down. When everything changes. When all the pieces were fitting together. Or when it feels like our best days are not before us but behind us. That’s why we must, from time to time, look to this passage from the 21st chapter of Revelation. Let me read a portion of it again: And I heard a voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; They will be his peoples, And God himself will be with them; He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; Mourning and crying and pain will be no more For the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Don’t you love that? I do. I look forward to that great day in the future when God will set the world right-side up. We must remember that God’s going to do that. We must remember that just as God created the world, so it will all be recreated. We don’t always think about that. Christians are most always mindful of how God created the world. We care so much about how God created the world that we argue about the way in which God did it. Parents used to take their kids out of public schools if they taught evolution. There were these great debates: Are you a creationist or might God’s hand have been at work in the evolution of the earth’s species? We get embroiled in that creation debate, but we must not forget how just as God was at work in the beginning of all things, so God will speak and make all things new again at the last. We can’t forget that. If we forget, we’ll lose hope. We can’t forget that God will put the puzzle of our lives together. God will sort it all out. My cousin and friend, Fran Sommerville, she’s a part of the Stephen Ministry of our church, sent me a wonderful piece written by a man named Sean Dietrich. He told the story of buying a jigsaw puzzle at the grocery store. I’ll read you just a piece of it: My mother started each puzzle by saying the same thing: “We gotta find the corners first, that’s how you do it.” The idea was that once you found the corners, the rest of the puzzle would come together. Thus, we would sift together twenty-five hundred pieces, looking for four corners. Once we found them, we’d dig for the edges. And we would talk. I remember one day, working on a puzzle. She stopped working. She said, “You know, you’re gonna grow up one day, and you’re gonna soar.” I did not think I would do anything with my life. I dropped out of school before eighth grade, I worked pathetic jobs. I once scooped ice cream for a living. That was my actual job. Ice cream. I threw the newspaper, laid tile, hung sheetrock, pulled electrical wire, drove a commercial mower, and played piano for church choir. Today, I dumped a five-hundred-piece puzzle on my kitchen table. I found the corners first. And I thought about the way our lives went. The day my father took his life, my mother was angry at him. She was angry at the universe for letting it happen. And I was angry with God for letting that happen to her. I wasn’t fuming mad, mind you, but I was sour inside. But I think I see things more clearly now. Our lives have been one giant puzzle. And maybe that’s how everyone’s life is. The pieces don’t make sense when they aren’t together, but you don’t give up looking. Not ever. My mother helped me find the corners first. My wife, my family, and my friends helped me find the edges. And so, the twenty-five-hundred-piece puzzle gets put together by an Unseen Hand. And even though it resembles a big cardboard mess before it’s done, it’s no mess. It’s perfect. That’s a nice image, isn’t it? And I can relate to corners first - then the edges. Is that how you put puzzles together? Is that how your life has come together? Or does it feel today like a jumble of pieces: Half must go to some other puzzle, or you get to the end, and you can’t find that last piece? When that’s life for you, then remember the picture on the box. The picture of how it will all look in the end is our second Scripture lesson for today. “See, I am making all things new.” Of course, so much is gone. Notice what all isn’t there. There are no stop signs, newspapers, Braves games, mules, nor tractors. The sea is gone, and Death will be no more. Mourning and crying and pain will be no more, For the first things have passed away. As the pieces go up in the air, remember that’s where we’re going. Don’t forget what it will look like, or you won’t have the faith you need to step out into the future. Speaking of stepping out into the future, today we celebrate graduates of high school, college, and medical school. I remember being one of them, though I can’t relate to most of them anymore. I applied to two colleges, only got it to one, and that’s how I decided where to go to college. Now, it’s so different. These days, kids start working to build their resumes to get into the University of Georgia as soon as they start middle school, while another Marietta Daily Journal columnist once wrote, “My acceptance letter to the University of Georgia came addressed: Dear [Joe], or current resident, congratulations, you’ve been accepted to the University of Georgia.” You see, everything changes. Some things get easier. Others get harder. Graduates, in the midst of all of it, never forget those voices telling you how you’ll soar, and when one door closes before you or when it feels like the pieces of your life are all up in the air, remember the cover of the box, which is our final destination. That’s where we’re going, my friends. It is done, God said. I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. This is our God, so as you think about all that’s wrong in our world, all that hurts in your life, and how the future may seem as jumbled as a puzzle dumped out on your kitchen table, I tell you, God is at work, leading us all to this new heaven and new earth when all will be put right-side up. Graduates, listen to your church as we say, “You will soar.” Parents of graduates, as your lives change, know that the pieces will come back together in new and beautiful ways. And everyone here, all God’s people, listen to this: The future is not uncertain. Today may feel like chaos, but God is in control. The first things are passing away as God is making all things new. Halleluiah. Amen.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

A Saint is Just a Sinner Who Fell Down and Got Up

Scripture Lessons: Psalm 23 and Revelation 7: 9-17 Sermon Title: A Saint is Just a Sinner Who Fell Down and Got Up Preached on May 8, 2022 This second Scripture lesson from the book of Revelation makes me think of three hymns. This is the first: Oh, when the saints Go marching in Oh, when the saints go marching in Lord, I want to be in that number When the saints go marching in That’s a good song to hear Louis Armstrong play. It’s also a good one to sing at a funeral. If you’re from New Orleans, you may have heard it in a funeral procession, and that really makes sense. That’s what the song is about: when the saints go marching into heaven. Did you know that? It’s true, and as strange as the book of Revelation is, the images in this book are more familiar than we sometimes realize. Who would have imagined that a song we all know the words to was inspired by the Scripture lesson we just read? A better question to ask is, who here knows what you must do to be in that number? Lord, I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in. That’s true. I do, but how? That’s where the second hymn that this passage from Revelation makes me think of comes in. I can’t play it on the harmonica, but you might know the words: There is power Power Wonder working power In the blood Of the lamb There is power Power Wonder working power In the precious blood of the lamb Do you know that one? If you were raised Baptist, you probably know how to sing that hymn. Its lyrics are based in verses of our second Scripture lesson: “Who are these, robed in white and where have they come from?” “These are [the saints] who have come out of the great ordeal; [for] they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.” If you want to be in that number, then you, too, must be washed in the blood of the Lamb, only what does that mean? That’s the question we must always ask when reading the book of Revelation, “Now what does that mean?” Let me try to tell you. A good friend of mine, Brandom Gengelbach, was president of the chamber of commerce in the town where we both lived in middle Tennessee, south of Nashville. Brandom decided to run for school board because the chamber of commerce recognized, as the chamber is often wise to recognize, that the economic growth of a community is linked to its ability to educate every single child, so Brandom, the chamber president, ran for a seat on the Maury County School Board, even though he had his kids in private school, and he quickly learned how difficult it is to run for public office. Going door to door, asking his neighbors for their votes, carrying around his five-year-old son Tyler, he knocked on the door of a man who asked just one question, “Have you been washed in the blood of the Lamb?” Brandom didn’t know how to answer the question, and later he called me for help. I told him that the answer is “yes,” especially if he wants that guy’s vote, but what does being washed in the blood of the Lamb even mean? It means that His victory, sacrifice, and blood change everything. When Brandom later lost the school board race, were it not for the blood, the loss might have crushed him. He tried and he lost, but he wasn’t crushed. Have you ever been there? I have and so has Coach Mark Richt of the Georgia Bulldogs. Last Thursday morning, I was honored to sit at Nancy Bodiford’s table at the Cobb County Prayer Breakfast where Coach Richt was the speaker. He said that someone asked him why he wasn’t coaching for the Bulldogs anymore. “I got fired, that’s why,” he said, and he said it laughing. Then he started talking about how after he was fired, he almost died. He was exercising in the gym and couldn’t finish the set he was on. He felt so nauseous, made it to the bathroom, but then realized he was all alone and really needed help. He called out. No one heard him. He closed his eyes and was at peace. Now, how did the saints come to be in that number? What does it mean to be washed in the blood of the Lamb? How did they, just as the Scripture lesson says, “come out of the great ordeal?” That’s like asking how Mark Richt could say, “I got fired; that’s why I’m not coaching for the Bulldogs anymore.” That’s like asking how he could close his eyes, thinking he had reached his last breath with peace in his heart? More than that, he told these stories, and the whole time the National Championship trophy, which he couldn’t win, was sitting just to the side of the stage, and I tell you, the reason he could laugh at his failing and have peace at the last was because the victory had already been won and he knew it. That’s what this is all about, and I don’t just mean our Scripture lesson from the book of Revelation, I mean our faith in general. What does it mean to be a saint? Does it mean you won the race? That you finished first? That you never made a mistake or hit rock bottom? No. A saint is just a sinner who fell down and got up. That’s the third hymn this passage from the book of Revelation makes me think of. It’s a Gospel song. You might call it a 7-11 hymn because it repeats the same seven words 11 times. It’s not a Presbyterian hymn where you need a dictionary to understand what you’re singing about it. It just repeats the same powerful phrase again and again and again: We fall down, but we get up We fall down, but we get up We fall down, but we get up For a saint is just a sinner who fell down and got up Did you hear that? So many faced their darkest nights of the soul when they fell down. They lost their jobs. They hit rock bottom. A problem came along that they couldn’t fix by being any nicer or working any harder. So many of us are walking around still feeling like a loser from the memory of falling down or being pushed down by the world. Likewise, I remember being nine or ten years old playing left field at Oregon Park when a dad from the other baseball team pointed to me and yelled to his son as he walked up to bat, “Hit it to the kid in left field; looks like he’s asleep.” I still remember how that felt. This is the kind of thing that happens, and it’s hard to forget about it. If you’ve ever been in such a position, on this Mother’s Day, I hope you had the kind of mother who would have walked over there and given that man a piece of her mind. Or the kind of mother who wiped the tears from your eyes. Or the kind of mother who looked at you and said, “That man’s words don’t define you.” Neither does how you do in this game or any other define you. Your job isn’t ever going to define you. Your height isn’t ever going to define you. Your grades aren’t ever going to define you. Where you get into college isn’t ever going to define you. You have been washed in the blood of the lamb. That’s how those saints robed in white came out of the great ordeal. Their lives on earth were a lives of persecution, famine, oppression, injustice, and slavery. There are saints in that number who watched their friends fed to lions and burned at the stake. How did they make it? How did they survive it? They kept walking through the valley of the shadow of death because they knew Who was with them. Maybe they didn’t win any trophies on this earth, but they knew they were more than conquerors because the One who loved them defeated, not just the world, but death itself. They closed their eyes and felt peace. They washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. They have come out of the great ordeal. For this reason they are before the throne of God. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; The sun will not strike them, Nor any scorching heat; For the lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, And he will guide them to springs of the water of life, And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. This is Christ Jesus Who died for you. You are precious in His sight. Don’t ever forget it. Amen.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

It Takes Courage to Touch the Wounds

Scripture Lessons: Revelation 1: 4-8 and John 20: 19-31 Sermon Title: It Takes Courage to Touch the Wounds Preached on April 24, 2022 Some people call today, the Sunday after Easter, Associate Pastor Sunday because so many pastors who preached on Easter take this Sunday off and go on vacation. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be here to defend the disciple Thomas. Thomas is the most misunderstood disciple. It’s just not fair how people talk about him. Think about how no one calls Peter “denying Peter,” though he denied Jesus three times after promising that he wouldn’t. No one even calls Judas “betraying Judas.” It’s only Thomas who gets the nickname. He’s Doubting Thomas, for when the disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord,” Thomas said, “I doubt it.” What do you think about doubt? A wise teacher once told me that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt. No, the opposite of faith is certainty. Think about that for a minute. The opposite of faith is certainty. Why would anyone say that? It’s because when we’re certain, we’re no longer open to new information. When we doubt, we stand ready to believe. If we doubt, we may be on the road to the truth. Indeed, it was this way with Thomas. Thomas was something like Copernicus. Copernicus doubted what everyone at the time was saying about the laws of planetary motion by claiming that the earth revolves around the sun. Do you remember that from history class? Likewise, Christopher Columbus doubted what everyone in his day was saying. Back then, folks believed that sailing west would result in falling off the face of the earth. Columbus doubted what everyone else was certain of and landed on America. What happened with Thomas is that he doubted the disciples; yet look at his declaration of faith at the end of our Gospel lesson: “My Lord and my God,” he said. Did anyone else say it so strongly? No. The others were behind a locked door the first time Jesus came, and even though He told them to go out into the world to forgive people of their sins, where were they the second time Jesus came? They were still behind that locked door. On the other hand, Thomas was out the first time Jesus came. He was out and about so soon after the crucifixion, while all those disciples saw what happened to Jesus and were afraid that the same might happen to them. What was Thomas doing out when everyone else was behind the locked door? We can’t know for sure, but let me tell you a little more about Thomas. He’s my favorite, so I’ve tried to learn a little bit about him. In chapter 11 of the Gospel of John, Jesus and the disciples heard that their friend Lazarus had died. Now Jesus knows that this is not a big deal. He’s planning to go there and raise Lazarus from the dead, but the disciples are afraid because the last time they were in Lazarus’ hometown they almost got killed: “Rabbi, they were just now trying to stone you there, and you want to go there again?” they asked Him as He was thinking about heading back to Bethany. Jesus wants to go and raise Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus’ sisters have sent for Jesus to come. However, the disciples are afraid to go back there. All the disciples are afraid save one: Thomas. This is what Thomas said to those disciples who were afraid of being stoned, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” That’s who Thomas was. He was courageous. “Let us also go, that we may die with him,” he said. Thomas wasn’t afraid of dying. Seeing Jesus crucified may have made him think, “I’ll follow Him even to His death if that’s what He wants from me.” I can imagine him in the streets of Jerusalem taking it all in. Imagine walking with Thomas and seeing Jerusalem so soon after the crucifixion. Was there another up on the cross already? Had word reached the priests that He had risen? What was the world like in those days after the resurrection? I don’t imagine it was springtime or that peace had finally come to the land. Instead, I imagine that those who had chanted, “Crucify Him,” were just as blood thirsty, and that those who divided His clothes were parading them around. Repentance had yet to come to the land, and most of the disciples were behind a locked door, afraid to go out. Where then is faith in this Gospel lesson for today? Where is faith? If you think the other disciples are faithful, I ask you to look at their actions, for they’re all behind a locked door, even after seeing the risen Lord. They remind me of a group of grown children talking about their mother, so terrified of how she’s doing that they’re not ready to face the truth. You can see them. “She seems great, doesn’t she?” one says. All nod their heads, relieved she’s recovered from the stroke. Maybe she doesn’t need as much help as they all had feared she would, only then comes the voice of Thomas: “I found her keys in the refrigerator.” “She also put salt in the tea.” “She put sugar in the grits, and remember what she used to say about people who do that?” “I just don’t feel good about leaving her here all alone.” “I know it’s what she wants.” “I know she seems OK today, but I think it’s just an act.” “This act she’s putting on, I doubt it.” It takes courage to doubt like that. Sometimes it’s good to doubt, and sometimes the faith of those around us looks more like denial. Behind locked doors, the disciples said they had seen the Lord. “Well, if you saw the Lord, why aren’t you out doing what He told you to do?” Thomas might have asked. Sometimes we talk so bad about Thomas, but think with me about him. I told you he’s my favorite, and I meant it. An old preacher used to say that some Christians are so heavenly-minded that they’re no earthly good. Have you heard that one? I can imagine Thomas saying that about his friends: “Well, if you believe He’s risen, why aren’t you out in the world doing something?” It’s because there’s a faith that’s just lip service to the Gospel. It’s a faith where you say you believe it, but you don’t really live it. Thomas is full of doubt, and yet he’s out there in the world. These disciples have seen the Lord, but they’re still behind a locked door. Is it better to say you believe but stay behind locked doors, or is it better to doubt and be out in the world? I don’t know, but the best thing is the kind of doubt that’s open to a deeper faith, and so I admire Thomas when he said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later, Jesus came and stood among the disciples and said, “Peace be with you.” Thomas was there. Jesus didn’t ask Thomas to leave, nor did he give him a lecture on how he should have believed what the other disciples told him. Instead, He said to Thomas, Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe. What happened next? Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” He wasn’t so certain that the door to faith was locked. Instead, his doubt led him to a faith greater than that of the other disciples, for this declaration he made, “My Lord and my God,” is among the strongest made in any passage of Scripture. His doubt led him to greater faith. That happens sometimes. To get there, though, we must unlock the doors and see the wounds. Sometimes, when I take the exit for West Paces Ferry off I-75, I won’t do either. When I pull off I-75, there’s almost always someone there asking for money. Sometimes I lock my door and turn my head. Have you ever done that? That’s sometimes what we do, and we want to protect our children from such things, but the Sherwood family went to New York City over Spring Break, and there you can’t help but see how some of our brothers and sisters live. Betsy asked her young daughter how she liked the trip, and little Katherine said, “I can’t understand how they would let so many people be homeless.” Did you hear that? That sounds like the faith of Thomas to me. She’s saying, “I can’t understand, but I want to know.” “It’s hard to see, but I won’t just turn my head or lock the door.” There they are suffering. Their wounds are obvious. I’m willing to reach out my hand to touch them, only what would happen if I did? That’s where faith becomes an absolute necessity, for in seeing the world as it is, in seeing the homelessness, the suffering, the sadness, and all the brokenness, sometimes we are like those disciples who say we believe but hide behind locked doors. We just can’t take it. Other times, we are those kind and loving servants who do so much good but have no belief, doubting everything they hear. Meanwhile, Thomas sees the wounds, touches them even, and comes to know the power of God. He has seen the shadow but knows that the light is brighter than all the world’s darkness. He doubted the account of his friends but came to a faith far stronger than theirs. He has seen the wounds, touched them even, but knows that still Christ rises from the dead. My friends, today let us be like Thomas. Let us doubt a little bit that we might come to greater faith. Let us go out into the world, seeing the wounds, and seeing them, rather than locking ourselves behind closed doors, let us boldly proclaim that Christ is risen from the dead. He is risen. He is risen indeed. Amen.

Monday, April 18, 2022

The Gardener

Scripture Lessons: Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24 and John 20: 1-18 Sermon Title: The Gardener Preached on April 17, 2022 What was it about Jesus that Easter morning so long ago that made Mary think He was the gardener? Are there ever gardeners in graveyards? Of course there are. Just think about it. There are trees and grass and birds. I know because I was running through the Marietta City Cemetery, and a bird dropped something on my forehead from one of those trees just a couple weeks ago. Someone has to care for those trees, and someone should be hunting those birds, but to the point, think about how much life there is in a place like the Mountain View Park Cemetery Oakland Cemetery downtown counts on at least 40 volunteer gardeners who prune, weed, plant, and manicure the grounds. Likewise, there’s a cemetery in Philadelphia that had to cap the number of volunteer gardeners at 150 because there were so many who wanted to help. Why do they do it? One said, “Working in a cemetery gives you lots of thoughts. Your day-to-day issues don’t seem as big because you’re reminded life is so fleeting.” Another volunteer who tended every day for a full year what’s called a cradle grave, which looks like a mix between a headstone and bathtub or a raised bed garden, described her gardening of graves as “really weird but also really nice.” I think I get it, and knowing a little bit about Jesus, I can imagine that Jesus looked like the kind of person who might volunteer to tend the plants in a graveyard because He was all the time bringing life to the dead places. That’s what He did. You remember. There was a woman at a well in the middle of the day. Why did she go there under the noonday sun instead of in the cool of the morning with everyone else? It’s because she’d had five husbands, and no one wanted to be seen with her, yet Jesus goes to this woman and asked her for a drink. Then, He provided her with living water. There was also a man named Legion, for he was not possessed by one or two demons, but an entire legion of them. The village kept him chained up among the tombs because he was uncontrollable; from time to time he would shout out at the top of his voice, yet Jesus went to this man and healed him. Who else was there? There was a woman named Mary. Rev. Cassie Waits preached about her a couple weeks ago. What had Jesus done for her? Why would she anoint His feet with $45,000 worth of perfume and wipe them with her hair? How else can you thank the man who saw you in that dark place and brought you back to the light? What else are you to do when you’d been lost but now are found? All the time, this Man was bringing life to the dead places. All the time, He was saving the lost. All the time, He was walking into the darkness bringing light, so it only makes sense that Mary Magdalene thought He was a gardener in a graveyard. That was His thing: bringing life to dead places, but He was also ever so much more than that. This morning, on the cover of your bulletin is an ancient icon from the Orthodox Christian tradition, which spread from the Eastern part of the Roman Empire: through Greece, Turkey, Russia, and is today the primary religion in Ukraine. This resurrected Jesus on your bulletin looks different from many of the artistic Easter renderings that we’ve grown used to. We tend to focus our art on how empty the tomb was that Easter morning, but notice what all the Eastern Orthodox Church remembers was down in there. The pit is full of chains, locks, keys, and a man tied up. Jesus stands triumphant on those two rectangles. Look closely at the picture. Jesus is standing on two brown rectangles laying across each other. What are they? They are the gates of Hell, which He has broken. What are the keys and locks down in that darkness? Can you see them? They are the locks and chains that used to hold so many captive. And who is that still down there but Satan himself, for now the one who held so many captive is bound and helpless. That’s what Jesus was doing in those days before He rose, for when we say in the Apostles’ Creed, He descended into Hell, we know that the Gardener was even bringing life down there. Even in Hell, He was doing what He always does, for the Gardener brings life to the places of death and liberates those trapped in darkness by the light of His love. That’s why He broke the doors to Hell and stands on them triumphant. It’s so that those who are trapped in suffering might find freedom, and this Easter Sunday service, viewed by the residents of the Cobb County Jail, I say it to you most clearly: Jesus is in the business of setting people free. The Gardener brings light and life to those places of shadow and concrete. He breaks through walls and bends back steel bars by His power to set the captives of sin and death free, yet how many in the Church believe that Jesus is in the business of sending people to such places of darkness and confinement? I once knew a man who said the preachers he’d grown up with made sure he knew all about the pit, and so there wasn’t any question of whether he was going to Hell, it was just a matter of when. Back in Tennessee, a church I’d drive past often put up on the marquee every year in the middle of August, “Sinners, you think it’s hot now?” Come on now. Don’t we know Who the Gardener is? Haven’t we learned by now the purpose of His mission? To roll back the stones that keep us confined to the shadows. To break the chains that have us isolated and trapped in the tombs. To bring life back to the places of death. To bring light to our shadows and hope to our despair. That’s who He is. Have you seen Him? We know that, at first, Mary had trouble recognizing Him. That happens with gardeners; they don’t always get our full attention. I once worked as a gardener in Buckhead. It was just after I had graduated college. I’d been accepted to graduate school and was trying to make a little money before I started. I was just finishing up in this woman’s driveway, raking a pile of leaves, when I heard her say to her kids, “That’s why you need to go to college, so you don’t have to work like that guy.” I wish I had had my diploma with me, but my point is that we do this all the time. Not only do we go past gardeners, garbage men, mail carriers, or waitresses without recognizing them as children of God, we go through life failing to see the Gardener bringing life to the places of death. It’s like we expect to see the Grim Reaper or the judge, and don’t know what to do with the Gardener, so we just look right over Him, yet there He is, knocking down the doors of our despair, for He is risen. He is risen indeed. The Gardener is walking around here right now. Have you seen Him? COVID-19 kept us under house arrest, but now we are out, free from that isolation, for He is risen. He is risen indeed. Also, if we are singing next to someone today who watches a different cable news show than we do and votes for people on the other side of the aisle, then He is breaking down the walls of division in our midst. You see, He is risen. He is risen indeed. In the news, I just heard that the strong man’s ship got sunk. I also heard how much kindness the Ukrainian refugees are meeting as they cross the border into neighboring countries. I met a missionary couple just last Friday who lives in Hungry and invited a Ukrainian family to live in their house while they spend Easter here in the States. How do you explain that kind of compassion? I’ll tell you. He is risen. He is risen indeed. Likewise, you may have noticed that our stained glass window is under construction. The wood around it had been rotting for years. I heard the cost of repair one morning, and the price tag scared me much more than the thought of having this old wooden cross up on Easter Sunday, only later that same week, a couple members of this church called prepared to give this church a financial gift. “Did we have anything that needed doing?” they asked, and right then, one couple funded the whole repair. This kind of miracle happens all the time, for the Gardener is walking all around bringing life to the places of death. You see, He is risen. He is risen indeed, and we need to get better at expecting to see Him so that we don’t miss Him. Life changes when you expect the resurrection. Two weeks ago, we had to put our 16-year-old dog down. Her name was Lucy. 16 years is a long time to have a dog, and we told our daughters we couldn’t get a puppy until Lucy died, which planted a seed of resentment towards Lucy. In fact, Lily had given up on Lucy ever dying. She would say that she hated the thought of coming back from college and her still being there. In fact, she joked how Lucy would probably rise from the dead on Easter Sunday. Well, yesterday, Sara and I picked up a stray dog on the side of the street, and when we brought that dog in the house, we yelled, “She is risen!” and Lily screamed and got up on top of a chair because the resurrection is not beyond the realm of possibility. Now, that’s not exactly how it works, but miraculous things are happening around us all the time. We just need to have the eyes to see them. I heard about a little girl who begged her parents for a guinea pig for a full two years. Last Friday, she got one. This morning, I read about a wife who forgave her ex-husband - and the other woman. Once we know what to look for, we see Him everywhere. He is the Light in the darkness. The Hope of the hopeless. The Gardener in the graveyard. For He is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

The Stone that the Builders Rejected

Scripture Lessons: Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29 and Luke 19: 28-44 Sermon title: The Stone the Builders Rejected Preached on April 10, 2022 This second Scripture lesson from the Gospel of Luke is so familiar and is read so often that it’s possible to miss how strange it is. It is strange. It starts out strange when you think about it. Consider the owners of the colt and how they must have felt. They caught the disciples when they went to borrow it, and I can imagine the owners of that colt feeling very strange, especially when the disciples explained, “The Lord needs it.” “Well, we kind of need it. That’s why we bought the thing,” they might have said. Consider this plan Jesus comes up with. Based on this plan of His, you can tell He’s not used to borrowing colts, which isn’t a thing, actually. No sheriff in the Wild West ever bought the defense, “But I was only borrowing that steed tied up in front of the saloon,” so the disciples must have felt really awkward when Jesus made this request of them: “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. [And] if anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” Hearing that request, I imagine they would have been thinking, “My cousin was hanged for stealing a colt back in Nazareth.” Let it sink in how strange this Gospel lesson is. Let it sink in, too, how being a friend to Jesus so often pushes us beyond our comfort zones, just as love always does. Love pushes us beyond our comfort zones, doesn’t it? If it didn’t, how do you explain people who push their dogs around in strollers. You really have to love a dog to push it around in a stroller. Likewise, as a husband and a father, I’ve found myself doing all kinds of things I never thought I’d do. For example, Sara was pregnant with Lily, and we went to have our first family portrait taken. The photographer asked me to put my nose on Sara’s belly button. I looked at the photographer and then at my wife, asking with my eyes, “Are you serious? Do you really want me to do this?” and then I did it. My nose on her belly. Why? Because sometimes we do strange things for people we love. On a plane last week, I was watching a TV show about a lower-middle class teenage girl who wanted to make a big impression at her classmate’s bat mitzvah. She begged her parents to buy a piece of jewelry they couldn’t afford so she could impress this wealthy classmate with what she thought was a super nice gift. Her parents relented, bought the gift, a $100 necklace they put on layaway, and the girl presented her classmate this necklace during the party, only the girl looked at it, said a terse thank-you, and went to the next present she had to open. Feeling rejected, the lower-middle class girl convinced her best friend to help her steal it back. Now that’s friendship. How do you know your friend is really your friend? She’ll help you steal back a gift that went unappreciated. She’ll go and borrow you a colt. Or he’ll let you paint his car checkerboard with flames. I’ll never forget when my two best friends in high school asked me if they could paint my car. I thought it was a great idea, but I told them I needed to ask my parents for permission. When my parents said “yes,” I couldn’t understand why. It was only when I was driving the checkered car around Marietta, and people started telling my parents, “I saw Joe driving down Whitlock. He was going a little fast.” that I understood. How did they know it was me? Well, there weren’t many checkerboard cars around at that time, so I realized I just allowed them to install a tracking device on me. Now, put these two ideas together: the feeling you get when a friend asks you to do something just beyond your comfort zone and a car that announces itself to the community, and you’re on your way to understanding what Palm Sunday is all about. It’s not just palms waved by a crowd of people. It’s not just the Sunday before Easter. When Jesus asks his disciples to borrow a colt, He is announcing Himself to Jerusalem. He is fulfilling an ancient prophecy. He is broadcasting His identity and His intention. More than that, He’s forcing every person in the city to make an uncomfortable choice: Are you with Me, or are you with Rome? Are you a friend of Jesus, or do you truly follow Him with your life? Are you just waving a palm branch, or are you ready to take a risk and become a disciple? It’s a choice that pushed many beyond their comfort zones. In our second Scripture lesson, the Pharisees find themselves on the fence because they’re not comfortable choosing Jesus. In other words, they knew exactly what it all meant, and they weren’t sure they were ready to put their noses on anyone’s belly or steal back anyone’s necklace. When they heard the multitude praising God with a loud voice saying, “Blessed is the king,” it made them nervous because they fully understood what Jesus was doing; they knew exactly what the crowd meant, and it scared them because they’d been waiting for the real king of Jerusalem while treating the emperor like he was it. They were trying to be both these things, not wanting to stand on one side or the other; however, if Jesus is the King of Jerusalem, then that means the emperor isn’t. Therefore, on that Palm Sunday so long ago, they were asked to make an uncomfortable choice, a choice made obvious considering the events of that particular week so many years ago. The same week that Jesus rode into Jerusalem, Pilate, draped in the gaudy glory of imperial power, came riding into town as well. Today, scholars believe that the great irony of Palm Sunday is that there were two parades that same week. Into Jerusalem rode Pontius Pilate on a white horse, surrounded by drums, trumpets, and soldiers at arms, while Jesus rode into the same city that same week on a colt surrounded by crowds of peasants waving palm branches. It was a choice, then, that every citizen had to make: Are you with Rome, or are you with Jesus? Both had a parade, both commanded a crowd, and both claimed to be king. For those crowds on that day so long ago, it would have been like any bold choice you ever made where you chose friendship or love over common sense, for their livelihoods, positions, and possibly their very lives depended on which parade they chose to attend. It was a choice that pushed them beyond their comfort zones. What we know today is that, like billboards, Rome would put up the crucified on the way into any city it controlled to broadcast its power. Yet Jesus rides in on a colt, proclaiming His presence and His identity, risking His life by saying, “I am here, and I am King.” So many rejoiced, but rather than welcome Him, the Pharisees beg Him, “Get your people under control!” Why? Because Rome is listening. Rome is listening, and Rome intended to control the city and broadcast the kingship of the Emperor. The Pharisees, feeling as though Rome were just too strong, felt more comfortable keeping quiet. What’s the matter with that? Following Jesus requires us to step beyond what we are comfortable with. Every day, He calls us to follow Him as He leads us beyond what we are used to and towards the Kingdom of God. “Take up your Cross, the Savior said” is how the hymn goes. If you would my disciple be; Take up your cross with willing heart, and humbly follow after me. That’s a good hymn to sing, though it’s a hard hymn to live. That’s why I admire those two disciples made horse thieves. They heard Him speak, and they decided to follow Jesus. Again, they did the uncomfortable thing. Just as they dropped their nets, turned away from their old lives, and followed Him, they went and borrowed Him a colt, whether they felt comfortable or not. Doing uncomfortable things like that is such a part of growing up and living the Christian life. It’s right there in 1st Corinthians: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. That’s the life of faith, and so Scripture describes marriage like this: a man will leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. It’s a choice. One or the other, and those who find it too uncomfortable to stop appeasing his parents are forced to live on the set of Everybody Loves Raymond. Friends, we are all the time being asked to leave our old lives behind to follow where He leads, and today I am convinced that the way to choose which way is the right one is by listening to our discomfort by doing strange things, for so often, what we are destined for lies just outside of our comfort zonse, and what brings the most satisfaction isn’t what comes easy but what comes at great cost. This is the way of love. There’s a great stewardship illustration that Mike Velardi shared with me a couple years ago. He encouraged me to use it during our annual pledge campaign. He said that the chicken and the pig were talking about what they would give to the master’s breakfast table. The chicken gladly gave her contribution, two eggs, which she was comfortable giving, while the pig realized he was being asked to make a commitment. Certainly, Palm Sunday is a commitment kind of Sunday. Recognize that what He’s on His way to is not a comfortable contribution but an uncomfortable commitment. That’s where His parade leads. He rides a colt, though He is the lamb of God, Himself the sacrifice to take away the sin of the world. As the great sign of His love, He offers this world His life. Well beyond His comfort zone, He proves that the stone the builders, the Pharisees, and so many others rejected, deserves to be the Chief Cornerstone of our lives. Even when it’s uncomfortable, follow Him. Why? Because by His love, He proves that He can be trusted. Amen.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Saving the Elder Son

Scripture Lessons: 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21 and Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32 Sermon Title: Saving the Elder Son Preached on March 27, 2022 If you were reading with me in your personal or pew Bible, then you noticed that I skipped from verse 3 to verse 11. Chapter 15 of the Gospel of Luke tells three parables right in a row. I skipped the first two, the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin, to get to the parable of the lost son. That last one, the parable of the lost son, is also known as the parable of the prodigal and his brother. That’s how it’s titled in your pew Bible. While I’ll mostly focus on the parable of the prodigal and his brother this morning, I hope you’ll notice that Jesus tells two parables to set up the third. The first two build up to the last one. The parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin make it easy to understand why the father would be so happy to get back his lost son. He is like all people who lose precious things. Be they sheep or coins, people are just happy to find what they thought they’d lost forever. Imagine God when one of His children finds her way back home as a version of my friend and neighbor Martie Moore when she found her lost car keys. The parable of the lost car keys would have been a good one for Jesus to tell because we all know that feeling of relief and can understand the father’s mind. Of course, the father would have been overjoyed. Even more than the shepherd was overjoyed to find a lost sheep, or the woman having 10 silver coins was overjoyed to find the one she lost after sweeping the house, was the father overjoyed to have his lost son back. That’s the point of telling the three parables together. We see how much more overjoyed than a shepherd who lost a sheep or a woman who lost a coin is God when an angry person finds his way back to joy, an ungrateful person to gratitude, or someone who hasn’t been to church in 20 years walks through the doors of our sanctuary. Of course, there’s a fatted calf BBQ dinner. Of course, the younger son gets a robe and a ring. God rejoices when what was lost is found. From the three parables, we know that, and we know it well. It’s a well-known truth that the God of grace rejoices when one of His children finds his way back home, for having feared he was lost, he is found. But what about us? How do we react when the wayward return home, and we find them in here sitting in our pews? That’s what this parable of the prodigal and his brother is really about, for it is directed, not to the prodigal sons of the world, but to the elder brothers. Notice those first verses we read. Those first verses set the stage for the three parables and especially for the third, which makes up our second Scripture lesson: Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. That’s the context of this parable, and whom it’s directed towards changes the meaning of it. While the parable of prodigal son is about God providing grace to the younger brother, that’s just part of the story. The rest of the story is that this parable is being told by Jesus to a whole crowd of elder brothers. Do you know what it’s like to be an elder brother? I’m the oldest of three. There are enough years between the three of us that we all had different experiences being raised by George and Cathy Evans. I’ll summarize by saying that they wouldn’t let me do anything, and they would let my little sister and brother do whatever they wanted. Whether it’s true or not, I feel sure that every older sibling feels this way. Talking through this parable with friends over the last week, I’ve heard from older siblings whose parents are still paying a younger sibling’s cell phone bill or car insurance. How old are those younger siblings? They are 25, 30, and 35 years old. I tell you, back in our day, it wasn’t like that. We had to walk to school in the snow, uphill both ways. More than that, I’m sure there’s more than one older sibling in the room this morning who has reason to be resentful because she was home taking care of the farm or the family while little sister was off at college or squandering her inheritance on dissolute living. There’s a hurt part in so many of us that resents those who got what we never had, be it a new car or the freedom to choose. There’s some part that never felt appreciated that lives inside the most responsible of us. Isn’t that right? We must be careful then, for that brokenness within us can grow into something that takes us far from home, too. Notice that the elder son in our parable is so hurt he’s on the outside of the party, so while we call the younger son the prodigal, by the end of the parable, the elder son is the one who’s lost. There’s a great party going on, but he’s on the outside of it looking in. That happens. The old story goes that an Episcopalian died, walked through the Pearly Gates, and ran into an old Presbyterian friend. The Presbyterian said to the Episcopalian, “Number one rule, don’t speak too loudly. We all whisper up here in heaven.” “Why is that?” the Episcopalian asked. “It’s because the Baptists are right over that hill. They think they’re the only ones who made it up here, and we don’t want to spoil it for them.” Wouldn’t the Baptists have more fun if they came into the party? Wouldn’t we all have more fun if we could let go of old hurts and resentments? Sure, we would, but think about what that would take. What does it take for the ones who made sacrifices to accept those who didn’t have to? What does it take for the ones who went without to embrace the ones who always had plenty? What does it take for the ones who stayed home to forgive the ones who left and wasted their inheritance? It takes grace. Do you know about grace? There’s a wonderful story about Karl Barth. Karl Barth was one of the two greatest theologians of the 20th century. He studied the Scriptures, read everything and everyone from Paul to Augustine to Clement to Calvin. If there was something to know about Christianity, he knew it, and he wrote wonderful books that were enlightening if you worked hard to understand what he was saying. Well, the story goes that when Barth died, he tried to take a wheelbarrow of his favorite books into Heaven with him. He thought he would need them, only St. Peter stopped him at the gate and said, “Dr. Barth, haven’t you learned by now that it all comes down to grace?” Dr. Barth left his wheelbarrow of books outside the Pearly Gates and went into the party. If only the elder son could do the same. If only he could have remembered that in Heaven there will only be One person there who deserves to be there. The rest of us get into the party having rode in on the Savior’s coattails, so who are we to say to the Father: For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him! Jesus knows it’s hard for us to accept how full of grace He is, so He spends this time talking with us about it. He takes the time to tell us what the father said to the elder son, now lost in his own hurt and resentment: Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found. He’s so much more than a lost coin or a lost sheep, and so he deserves even more rejoicing. Please come into the party; there’s plenty of room for him and for you. There’s plenty of room. There’s plenty of grace. There’s plenty of love. Can’t you see it? Our Director of Family Ministry, Natalie Foster, has been teaching the children of this church new spiritual disciplines during the season of Lent. First was fasting, then prayer. Last week was listening; this week is embracing simplicity. How do you embrace simplicity? You embrace simplicity when you recognize what you have, and so often, what we have is plenty. There is plenty of grace, so why not share it? Why not share it, even with the ones whom we resent? Why not let it wash the resentment and old hurts out of our hearts? For if there is a place set at the table for the prodigal, the sinner, or the tax collector, that just means that there is always a place set at the table for us. I believe that’s what the religious authorities of the day couldn’t understand because that’s what religious people never seem to understand. There were three groups of them in Jesus’ day that we hear about: the scribes, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees. The scribes are easy to remember. They’re just scribes. The Sadducees and Pharisees are harder to remember, but this is true, and this will help. The Sadducees didn’t believe in an afterlife, so they were sad, you see. The pharisees loved the law, so they were fair you see. Only God isn’t fair. God is grace. Remember that. Let it pour into your heart, and then pass it on. Amen.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Bear Good Fruit

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 55: 1-9 and Luke 13: 1-9 Sermon title: Bear Good Fruit Preached on March 20, 2022 Jesus uses all kinds of metaphors, but when He talks about trees, I really have to think about what He means. What does it mean that He compares us to trees? When a sheep gets lost or when a prodigal son wanders from home, that sounds more like us. We have some agency. We know that we can wander from the fold. Unlike a tree, we have legs. I don’t imagine that I’m providing you new information when I say that trees don’t have legs, but here’s why it matters: It matters because you can’t really blame a tree for not bearing any fruit. You can’t blame a tree for not bearing fruit any more than you can blame Freddie Freeman for getting traded from the Braves. In fact, you should blame a tree for not bearing fruit even less than you should blame Freddie Freeman for getting traded because Freddie could have spoken up. He has a voice. He could have stomped his feet. He has feet. Maybe you can tell I’m a little upset about Freddie Freeman leaving the Braves. I am, and as I struggle to accept a new first baseman from Gwinnett County on the Atlanta Braves, I’m also struggling to accept the truth that when a tree bears no fruit, it often has more to do with the gardener than it does the tree. Have you ever been a gardener? Through high school and college, I cut grass at the Winnwood Retirement Community. My old friend Mike Waters is still in charge of the grounds over there. It’s a beautiful place, and I took pride in my work. One summer, I was asked to plant lantana in one corner of the grounds away from the road. This plot was tucked in a corner, and because of the way the sun hit it, this corner was perfect for lantana. That summer the plants grew and bloomed. The residents who lived in that corner of Winnwood would tell me how much they loved looking out their windows to see the flowers I had planted, and that made me happy. On another occasion, I was directed towards bags of fertilizer. When I asked how much I should put out on the plants, my boss told me we had plenty. Well, do you know what happens when you put too much fertilizer on a plant? I literally killed every flower on Winnwood’s property, and I couldn’t blame the pansies. Imagine if I had blamed the pansies for dying. No, when a plant doesn’t bear fruit, whom do you blame? You can no more blame a plant for dying than you could blame those Galileans for being killed by Pilate. You can no more blame a plant for dying than you could blame those 18 who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them. Whom, then, do you blame? You might blame the gardener and hope and pray for a new one. This parable from the Gospel of Luke proclaims the truth that a new Gardener has come. If we are trees, then that’s good news, but are we like trees? A tree can’t very well pull herself out of the ground to walk over to a sunnier spot. Is that true of you? A tree can’t fertilize herself. Is that true of you? A tree can’t pollinate her own flowers. A tree can’t help it if a storm comes and takes off her limbs. Life just happens to trees. Are we like trees? In some ways we are, so in some cases, being yelled at makes as much sense as yelling at a tree. I was a chaplain intern at the Metro State Women’s Prison. That was the hardest summer of my life. Every day I’d go through those gates and hear the locks clang behind me. It sucked the joy out of me, and I got to go home at the end of every day. Not everyone was that lucky. During the days, I’d go from building to building meeting with different inmates. At the far end of the complex was one place I was warned never to go. It was the intake, where county jails would drop off women so that they could be assimilated into prison life. They were given new prison clothes, they received a medical examination and an orientation to prison life. The intake officers would yell at them to make sure they all understood who was in charge at Metro State Women’s Prison and what would happen should they step out of line. Now, maybe that was necessary, but it broke my heart when a group of at-risk teenage girls came to visit the Metro State Women’s Prison, and they were addressed by those same intake officers. It seemed wise to someone somewhere to address these young girls, just 12 or 13, the same way grown and convicted criminals were addressed. Statistically, they were mostly from broken homes. Likely, they had been abused. Certainly, they had suffered trauma, yet they stood in front of the prison and were addressed by the prison’s intake officers, and it looked to me about the same as a gardener yelling at his trees for not bearing more fruit. Are we like trees? In so many ways, we are, for so much of what happened to us wasn’t our fault. People who understand that are better able to forgive. Let me give you an example. Have you been watching Ted Lasso? It’s the best show I’ve ever seen. The plot is of a college football coach from the Midwest who’s been recruited to coach soccer at the highest level in Richmond, England. This move from the Midwest to England was a bad move. American football and English soccer don’t have very much in common, but that Coach Ted Lasso would fail is according to the owner’s plan. The owner of the Richmond soccer club that just hired Coach Ted Lasso is hoping he’ll run the soccer club into the ground to get revenge on her ex-husband, who only really loved one thing: this Richmond soccer club. It's the same plot as Major League, if you’ve seen that movie, only it’s better because the owner of this Richmond soccer club, her name is Rebecca, feels remorse for having recruited Ted Lasso from the Midwest, given him a job she hoped he would fail at, sabotaged him every step of the way, and made him a pawn in her plot to cause her ex-husband pain. Feeling remorse and regret, even having come to love Coach Ted Lasso, she goes down to his office and apologizes to him. What does he do? He says, “Divorce is awful. It makes people do crazy things. I forgive you.” Divorce is awful. COVID has been awful. War is awful. Death is awful. Stress is awful. Unemployment is awful. Retirement, middle school, cancer, even some days of parenthood, are all awful. Going through those dark times, we are like trees in the shade who aren’t getting enough sun. We are like trees whose branches have been broken off by the wind. At some time or another, we are all under-fertilized, sunlight-deprived, and unpollinated, which makes us do crazy things. For those things, by God’s grace, you are forgiven. Jesus says: If you are alive today, you have today to change, but let me be very specific about the kind of change Jesus is talking about in this parable. Jesus here is telling us simply: “I am the Gardener; just receive what I am providing.” As a tree receives nourishment through her roots, just allow the Good News of the Gospel to permeate your soul. Let in the words of Scripture. Hear His Holy Word. As was true for the last two weeks, again this week our Children’s Ministry Director, Natalie Foster, is equipping our kids and our congregation to develop a new spiritual discipline. Two weeks ago, it was fasting. Last week was prayer. This week is listening, but listen to what? Today, listen for fertilizer: Mark 1:11: “You are mine, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” John 1: 5: “The Light sines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it.” Jeremiah 29: 11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.’” Psalm 85: 8: “I will listen to what the Lord says; he promises peace to his people.” Best of all, Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” Do you hear those words? Do you know those words? Have you memorized those words? Let them sink in, for you’ll never bear fruit if you haven’t let yourself internalize the Good News of the Gospel. This morning, you heard it again: The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting. As far as the East is from the West, so has he taken our sins away. One of my closest friends once told me that out of all the things he hears in the worship service, that assurance of forgiveness is the hardest for him to believe. You have the chance to believe it today. Unlike so many, you woke up this morning because the gardener bought us a little more time. Don’t waste it by resisting the Good News He provides. Don’t waste it by only listening to the critics and suggestion givers. Hear and believe the Good News. Then and only then will you bear good fruit. Amen.