Sunday, July 25, 2021

I AM

Scripture Lessons: Exodus 3: 1-14 and John 18: 1-11 Sermon Title: I AM Preached on July 25, 2021 Most days when it’s nice out, and even sometimes when it’s not as nice, I ride my bike here to the church. When I get here, I park it in the bike rack right outside that Mike Clotfelter installed about four years ago now. Just having the option of riding a bike to work is a benefit of living close by that I’m grateful for, and this blessing only comes with a couple challenges: 1. how will I get home if it’s raining? 2. how do I survive ridding over the Harris Hines Bridge? One Monday morning I was riding here. I got to that bridge. You know the one I’m talking about. It’s the bridge right behind the church that takes Kennesaw over the 120 Loop. Going over that bridge is the part of the ride that scares me the most because the road narrows, people speed up to get over the railroad tracks, so I almost always illegally ride on the sidewalk. Well, that Monday there were two people walking on the sidewalk already. I first came up behind Ginny Brogan, a member here, who tolerated me as I squeezed past her on the narrow sidewalk. Up ahead was the other, a man I didn’t know. As I passed by him on my bike he said, just loud enough for me to hear, “You know it’s illegal to ride a bike on the sidewalk.” I didn’t know this man, and his words struck me, so I thought about stopping to apologize or explain myself, only then the thought occurred to me, “what if he asks who I am and where I’m going”? How is it going to look to this man I’ve never met before, how is it going to reflect on this church, if I so blatantly disregard the standards of public safety on my way here? What if he said, “Well, I was thinking of going to visit First Presbyterian Church, but now that the preacher nearly pushed me off the sidewalk and into oncoming traffic, I think I’d rather not”? For that reason, I just kept ridding, but I still think about it. I still think about almost running this man off the sidewalk on my bicycle, because, while maybe it’s not as bad as cutting off someone’s ear, still, it is another instance where I must wonder how well the Gospel is being preached through the actions of those who call themselves Christians. Think about the slave Malchus. The Bible takes the time to give us his name, which is a sign of how important he is to remember. We just read: “Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus,” and he was doing nothing more than minding his own business, obeying his master’s wishes, so what did he think about the Prince of Peace when his right-hand man, Simon Peter, comes at him with a sword? How was the Gospel proclaimed in that moment? How was the Kingdom advanced? On whom has Christ built His church? Do you know that line? The first time Peter fully recognized Jesus for who he was he said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Excited, Jesus then said to him, “You are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” When Jesus makes this declaration it’s a spirit filled moment recorded in Scripture, and there’s even more to it if you can read Greek, the language the account was originally written in. In Greek the word for rock is Petros, or Peter. The name Peter just means rock, which is why Jesus names the man formally known as Simon “Peter.” His name says it all: “He is the Rock” Christ’s Church is built upon, but the rock cut off a man’s ear. What do you make of that? Another important play on words which I believe helps explain an important point is an easy one to miss in our Second Scripture Lesson, because this one hinges on our ability to read Hebrew. When the detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priest and the Pharisees were led by Judas with lanterns and torches and weapons, Jesus asked, “Whom are you looking for?” They said, “Jesus of Nazareth,” and Jesus said, “I AM.” That’s not what we read in English because a literal translation of the ancient language doesn’t make much sense, so just a moment ago we read Jesus’ response as, “I am he.” That’s not an exact translation. What I want you to know is that in our First Scripture Lesson, when Moses asks God, “Whom shall I say sent me,” and God says, “Tell them I AM sent you,” in our Second Scripture Lesson Jesus is quoting God because that’s who he is. As he’s being arrested he’s letting them know that he is the God of Abraham and Sarah, Miriam and Moses, Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego. He’s the power behind the burning bush and the pillar of flames that led the people through the wilderness. Incarnate in human flesh, he is the first and the last, the beginning and the end, the one who created this world, who still sustains it, and who works through human history to redeem it again and again and again. Bible scholars will tell you that here Jesus invokes the divine name, which explains why the intimidating band of armed men who had come to arrest him “stepped back and fell to the ground” before a collection of threadbare disciples led by the prince of peace. These soldiers and police officers kneel before him because they know that they are not God, but he just said he is. “I AM,” he said. So now I go back to Peter, who is the rock that Christ’s church is built upon. Did he really cut off a man’s ear? Yes, he did. Can you really build a church on Peter? Of course, you can, so long as Peter and everyone listening to him remembers that he’s not God. “I AM,” says Jesus. “I AM.” This is the final Sunday of an eight-week sermon series focused on the “I am,” statements of Jesus. Week after week we’ve focused on these phrases which Jesus uses to describe himself. This summer we’ve thought about how Jesus says, “I AM the bread of life. I AM the light of the world. I AM the gate, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way and the truth and the life,” and last Sunday, “I AM the vine.” Now we reach the 8th and final statement, which is just plain, “I AM.” To think about this one is a little bit harder. You have to reach a little bit further to understand what he means. Even scholars typically only deal with the first seven of these statements, but Rev. Cassie Waits who came up with this series and the idea for the ribbons added this eighth one, because saying, “I AM” also goes so far in Jesus’ effort to describe himself to us, and this description goes a long way in helping us understand who we are. With this statement Jesus is explicitly saying, “I am the same God who spoke to Moses out of the burning bush and led the Hebrew people out of slavery” though what I want to focus on this Sunday is what’s implicit in this statement because it’s also as though Jesus is saying, “I am God, and you are not.” Do you know anyone who gets confused about that? Some people do. And so, I have a message for those members of a neighboring church who find themselves in the news week after week. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say that Mount Bethel United Methodist Church is in the headlines. Some are disappointed in the pastor who is refusing to do what the bishop says. Others are disappointed in the bishop for making this move for reasons of church politics rather than for the wellbeing of the congregation. Both factions make a fair point, only here’s what’s most important for any frustrated church members to remember: neither the bishop nor the pastor is God. “I AM,” Jesus said. We must remember that. If we don’t we’ll stand to be disappointed again and again, for no human being can stand up to divine standards. We’re not perfect. “I AM,” Jesus said. We’re not always selfless, but “I AM” Jesus says. We’re not free from ambition, ego, narcissism, pride, or human error, though Jesus says, “I AM”. Plus, to quote the pastor who did our premarital counseling, “If you go looking for flaws in your partner you’re going to find them,” and that goes for your pastor, your doctor, your kids, yourself, your politicians, the CDC, the World Health Organization, CNN, the School Board, the Rotary Club, or anything else run by human beings. Some might ask, “Then who should we be listening to? Is it just eny, meany, miney, mo?” No. It’s “and he is it.” We aren’t perfect, but “I AM” he said. “I AM.” What do with that? I’ll tell you. Don’t confuse preachers and Jesus. Don’t confuse politicians and the Savior. Don’t confuse doctors and God. Don’t think that you’re more powerful than you are. You just aren’t that powerful, and neither is anybody else. Amazing things happen through you. That’s true. Still, we try too hard. We hold too tightly. We can’t let go. We deny our shortcomings. This week you were given a blue ribbon. Blue is the color of Mary, the mother of Jesus. I think about her and all she knew about her baby. How she knew that she wasn’t the one to put the world right. No, she wasn’t. “I AM,” Jesus said. That’s what I want you to write about this Sunday on your ribbon. What do you need his help with? There’s that country song, “Jesus take the wheel.” That’s not very good advice when it comes to driving a car, but there are so many moments where that’s the best advice in the world. Why? Because sometimes, with us, it’s impossible, while nothing will be impossible with the one who said, “I AM.” When you get down to it, who is he to you? Or who do you long that he would be? What is the thing you know you can’t do and long that he would help you with? What is the shortcoming that you have that you need his grace to fill? There’s been a million pages written to get down to this one essential theological reality that any child here could sing: We are weak, but he is strong. Give to the Lord your weakness. Being a Christian isn’t about perfection. If you want to be a Christian in your heart than kneel before him. Surrender. There comes a moment when we must stop thinking, “If I could just be the right person, if I could just get the right answer, if Id would just try harder or be better…” for Christ has built his Church on the rock of imperfect Peter, on the reality of our weakness, for our weakness points to his strength. Where are you weak? How can he help you? Moses said, “You can’t send me. I can’t speak,” yet what did God do through him? Write down your weakness on your ribbon, and just as Christ gave Malchus back his ear, so may his grace heal the wounds inflicted on the world by imperfect people just like us. Give to him your weakness. Write it down on your ribbon, and ay it become a foundation for his strength at work in your life. Amen.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

I AM the Vine

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 5: 1-7 and John 15: 1-8 Sermon Title: I AM the Vine Preached on July 18, 2021 Have you ever heard of Cecil Collins? I learned about him last Tuesday from a Marietta Daily Journal article about Evander Holyfield. Evander Holyfield, world heavyweight champion boxer and Atlanta resident, mentioned him when talking with Cobb Chamber of Commerce Chair John Loud last Monday. Apparently, Cecil Collins is a white boy who Evander Holyfield just couldn’t beat. Holyfield was 10 or 11 the first time Cecil Collins beat him, and after the fight he went home crying ready to never box again. He said, “My mamma let me cry for about two minutes. After that, she asked, “What happened?” “I lost, and I quit,” he answered. Every kid goes through something like this, so every parent has been through this with their kids. Maybe what the kids don’t know is that at least some of the time we’d like to let you quit so we don’t have to drive you to practice, but we can’t let you do that, so Mrs. Holyfield made him go back to boxing. However, then Collins beat him again. This time it was his coach who talked him out of quitting. I guess Holyfield now knew better than to go straight to his mom, so he went to his coach instead. His coach said, “[Why are you quitting? You haven’t lost.] You lose when you stop. [You lose when] you don’t do it [any] more. Setback paves the way for comeback.” That’s good advice. Obviously Hollifield listened, and what I want to point out thinking of Cecil Collins, is that Holyfield grew up to beat not just Cecil Collins but 44 out of the 57 he faced as a professional boxer. He is today the only professional fighter to win the heavyweight championship four times surpassing the record set by Muhammad Ali, making him one of the greatest boxers of all time, and yet he also got pruned. Expect to be pruned. That’s one important point that this passage from the Gospel of John makes. Expect to be pruned and don’t mistake being pruned from being cut from the vine. “I AM the vine,” he said. This is the seventh sermon in a series of eight focusing on what Bible scholars call the “I AM” statements of Jesus. This is the seventh statement that Jesus uses to describe himself: “I AM the vine,” he said, “and you are the branches.” Even the branches that bear fruit must be pruned so that they can bear more fruit, and how important it becomes that we be able to tell the difference between being pruned and being cut off from the vine. Do you know anyone who has trouble telling the difference? If you know me than you know someone. How many times have I hit a bump in the road professionally and been ready to quit? How many times have I made a mistake and been too embarrassed to apologize, so I wanted to just quit on a person? How many times have I suffered and wondered if God had quit on me? We parents all make fun of our kids who sometimes act like it’s the end of the world when they’re disappointed. They don’t make the team and they act like their life is over. Someone breaks their heart, and they can’t leave their bedroom. They act like this because that’s how it feels, and it feels that way to their parents too, but enough bad things have happened to their parents for them to realize that bad things are normal. All the time bad things are happening to us. Day after day we must let go and move on. It’s not all tragic for every branch that bears fruit must be pruned to bear even more, and just because some parts of us are dying that doesn’t mean we are dying. That doesn’t mean we have to quit. That doesn’t mean it’s all over. A book I love is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It was rejected by publishers 121 times and has since sold 5 million copies worldwide, and this is just one of many books that was famously rejected to go on to huge success. Author of Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling, who has sold 450 million books was rejected by her first 12 publishers. Stephen King threw his first book in the garbage, rejecting it himself. It was then rejected 30 times before being picked up by Doubleday Press and selling over 1 million copies. Then there’s Michael Jordan. Some say he’s the greatest basketball player who ever lived, but did you know that Michael Jordan didn’t make the high school varsity basketball team the first time he tried out? Now he says, “[That’s when it all started.] It all started when coach Pop Herring cut me [from the team].” After not making the team Jordan went home to cry, but years later, now a superstar on Jay Leno in 1997 he said, “Everybody goes through disappointments, it’s how you overcome those disappointments. I just wasn’t good enough. [Today I know that was] the best thing that could have happened to me: to get cut, because [getting cut] made me go back and get caught up with my skill level.” Now, I’m not the Michael Jordan of preaching, but I assure you, I’ve gotten better too, and so much of my improvement is a result of my failure. I was in a club for aspiring preachers in college and the club sponsor took me to the local retirement home to preach one Sunday morning. On the way back to campus the only good thing he could think to say was “you preached for 17 minutes. That was about the right amount of time.” I’ve been doing it like that ever since. Did you know that it’s OK to fail? That it’s good to be pruned? That you weren’t born perfect and so you must get better every day and every hour. Some of us go through life so afraid of criticism that we let it break us. Others of us go through life so hungry for praise that we avoid ever taking a risk. The parable makes this much plain: getting pruned is a part of life. Getting pruned helps us bear more fruit. Getting pruned doesn’t mean we’re cut off from the vine. “I AM the vine” he said. And do you know what else he said? “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” “I will be with you, even until the end of the age.” And according to the Apostle Paul: “Nothing will separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Now that doesn’t mean you’re perfect. That doesn’t mean you don’t have more to learn. That doesn’t mean you should keep your car keys forever. That doesn’t mean you don’t have anything to apologize for. You do. I do. But we can apologize because doing something bad doesn’t mean we’re bad. Making a mistake doesn’t mean I’m a mistake. Failing a test doesn’t make me a failure. A rejection doesn’t disqualify me. It certainly doesn’t disqualify me from being loved. Who reminds you of that? Good parents remind kids of that all the time. Evander Holyfield’s mom wouldn’t let him quit. He got beat twice by Cecil Collins. After their third fight when Holyfield one, his mama gave him permission to quit boxing if he wanted to, but he kept going. Who has helped you keep going? Today you have a purple ribbon. Grapes are purple and we’re blessed with people who help us produce more of them. When we are pruned, we produce more. When we remember that we’re connected to the vine we produce more. Who has helped you remember that you’re still connected to the vine? I’d like for you to write their name on your purple ribbon, because it’s a miraculous thing they’ve done for us, isn’t it? Of course, there’s a time to quit. Some people in my life have helped me quit certain things. I was never going to be a heavy weight boxing champion. I was never going to make the Atlanta Braves. But I once tried to quit basketball in the middle of a game. I was 10 or 11 and I couldn’t make a shot. My Dad pulled me over to the side and said, “Did you know that the best players in the NBA miss half their shots?” That’s true. Did you know that while Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs, he struck out over 13,000 times? Did you know that the first time Abraham Lincoln ran for political office he came in 8th? I’ve wanted to quit being a preacher a time or two and I’m very thankful to those people who wouldn’t let me. I told you already that I once preached a sermon where the only good thing about it was that it was brief. If you can’t be good, be brief, my preaching professor once said. I also once preached a good sermon and a mentor of mine said that she thought it had made God smile. That compliment makes me tear up just thinking of it, and had I quit I never would have heard it. Had I not been pruned I never would have heard it either. “I AM the vine,” he said, and being pruned once or twice does not cut us off from him. Who has reminded you of that? The whole nation of Israel was reminded of that by the Psalms and the Prophets. We read about it from our First Scripture Lesson: a vine who yielded wild grapes. This vine represents a people who failed. They failed to measure up, they turned away from who they were created to be. God expected justice from them but saw bloodshed instead. God expected righteousness, but instead heard the cry of the innocent suffering at the hands of the powerful. What the prophet is saying here is that the people deserved to be cut off. Not just pruned, but torn down, pulled up, and tilled under. What vineyard owner preserves a vine who produces wild grapes? Who sows bloodshed and abuses the weak? But our faith is not about what we deserve. Our faith is about a grace greater than all our sin. Who has reminded you of that? Who has remined you that by being pruned, you might still bear good fruit? That through hardship we might find a better way to be. That while he had reason to, Christ has not given up on His people yet, and by his grace we are invited to try and try and try again. Who has helped you remember that his love for you is as resilient as that vine in the yard that just won’t die and keeps coming back? Write their name down on your purple ribbon and give thanks to God for them. Amen.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

I AM the way and the truth and the life

Scripture Lessons: Exodus 13: 17-22 and John 14: 1-7 Sermon Title: I AM the Way and the Truth and the Life Preached on July 11, 2021 Do you hate to ask for directions? Does your husband? I hate to, so sometimes I just won’t do it, even if I’m lost. Last week I was in Montreat, North Carolina with several members of our staff for a Music and Worship Conference. For years our church went there every winter for an annual retreat and sent the youth group to a conference there every summer. I’ve been there so many times that last week during the conference I was sure I knew where I was going. I was so sure that I couldn’t ask for directions. It was a matter of pride. What’s true about me is that sometimes I feel like I should know the way. That’s pride or ego talking, but “I AM the way,” he said to his disciples. This is the fifth sermon in a series of eight focused on what some call the “I AM” statements of Jesus. He describes himself in several different ways, and today we come to this significant statement, “I AM the way, and the truth, and the life.” The Scripture Lesson I just read where he describes himself this way comes from the Gospel of John. I’ve read it many times. At 90% of weddings, I’ve read 1st Corinthians 13 and at 90% of funerals I’ve read this passage from the Gospel of John. Why? Maybe because it’s only when we’re faced with death that we’re OK asking for directions. Only when confronted with that great journey into the unknown are we ready to confess that we don’t already know the way, but my friends, today let me say it clearly. Whether it is from death to life, from lost to found, from uneducated to wise, on all great journeys we must be prepared to ask for directions. Let Thomas be our example of how it’s done. Jesus says, “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” That phrase at the end makes an assumption: “And you know the way to the place where I am going, right?” It’s like he’s saying, “You’ve been paying attention, going to Sunday School, reading your Bible, singing your hymns, being a good girl or boy, and loving your neighbor, so you ought to know.” Be careful here, for that phrase, “You ought to know,” comes from a little voice inside all our heads and not from the lips of Jesus. “You ought to know” is ego talking, and ego can’t get us to the Promised Land. It just sends us down a spiral of shame. To get to the Promised Land we must be ready to ask the Savior for directions. So, think about what Thomas does here. He’s the one willing to say, “Lord, we do not know the way.” That can be an embarrassing thing to say out loud. Many people go through life very self-conscious about what they don’t know or don’t believe, so they don’t broadcast it. I remember a story a friend told me. His son was getting married to a Roman Catholic woman. In order for the priest to do the wedding, he had to convert. That was fine with him. He was in love, so he was glad to, but he was getting lost in all these classes. He was hearing about all these saints and was getting confused. As he had been born Presbyterian, he wasn’t used to any of it. Finally, he asked the priest who was teaching the class, “Just how much of this stuff do I actually have to believe?” During the journey of faith, we all reach this point sooner or later. The thing to remember when we reach this point is that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, the opposite of faith is certainty. Those are the words of Christian writer Ann Lamont. Do you know what she means by that? What she means is that there is a difference between knowing the way or thinking you know the way and following the One who is the way. There is a difference, maybe a slight one, between knowing the Bible inside out and taking a step out into the unknown alongside the One who can walk on water. There is a difference between thinking you have it all straight in your head and trusting the Savior with all your questions. Thomas gets that. In his unknowing he shows us what being in a relationship with Jesus looks like. With a certain kind of boldness – let’s call it faith – he bravely asks the question that everyone else was too scared to ask: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Do you hear that? Do you hear what he’s asking? Do you see what’s faithful about asking a question like that? This is how it’s done. Thomas has it right. Do you know how I know he has it right? It’s because Jesus doesn’t push him away for his question. Jesus never shames Thomas for what he doesn’t know. Instead, he just answers: “I AM the way,” he said. That’s important for us to remember today, because in this world today, the social fabric is falling apart and I believe it falls to the Church to show the world how to knit it back together, only right now plenty of our brothers and sisters are all caught up in having the right answers, as though having the right answers were a substitute for being in right relationship. What I mean by that is that I’m back in school and I’m having a hard time with some of what’s required of me. I’m working towards my doctorate, and lately, all my classes have been on Zoom, which requires a certain level of computer literacy that I don’t have, but not only that, I haven’t been in class in a while and a lot has changed since I was in seminary. I joined this class and I’d try to participate but it seemed like I kept on putting my foot in my mouth. Without thinking, I offended a classmate. Not knowing what I had done, just reading her face, and seeing hurt there, I worried that I had slammed the door on a friendship before it even began. I contacted her and I asked her, “Did I offend you? I didn’t mean to. How can I make it right?” This story might sound like the end of a friendship, but it wasn’t. In asking those questions, a friendship began, because it doesn’t matter whether you have all the right answers. Relationships can be built by having the courage to ask the right questions. Have I offended you? Why are you so upset? Can you show me the way? “I AM the way,” he said. “I AM the way.” This statement reminds me of a certain kind of knowledge that’s far more important than a grasp on facts or figures. A knowledge that sometimes we forget about. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was honored to talk with Meri Kate Marcum. Meri Kate is an elder on the session, so she’s one of our church’s elected leaders. She’s also a seminary student, so she’s training to be a pastor, and she’s the director of the preschool over at the Methodist Church. At the beginning of the pandemic, she called me, and we were talking about preschools, and who was doing what and what should be done. Meri Kate had already been talking with Betsy Sherwood, our preschool director, and the two of them were on the same page. They were both feeling like there wasn’t much of a point to having virtual preschool, even though it was technically possible to do it, just as the elementary, middle, high schools, and colleges had. Unlike those schools, “virtual preschool doesn’t make any sense,” they said, “because the main thing you need to learn in preschool is how to get along with your classmates and you can’t do that virtually.” Now you can learn some important things virtually, but: You can’t learn how to share. You can’t learn to keep your hands to yourself. You can’t learn to apologize. You can’t learn how to make friends. “I AM the way,” he said. What does he mean? He means, don’t worry so much about what you know or don’t know. Worry more about asking the right questions that build up the right relationships, because we’re all heading towards the father’s house with many rooms, and if we can’t learn how to live together now, sharing that great big house is going to get difficult. Have you ever lived in a house with a know it all? One of my favorite proverbs from Scripture is Proverbs 21: 9: It is better to live on the roof of a house than in it with a contentious wife. Had a woman written that proverb it might have said, “It’s better to live locked in the bathroom than with a man who thinks he’s never wrong.” How dangerous it is to go through life with certainty. How foolish it is to rush to conclusions. Have you ever thought about how much damage false assumptions do to the world around us, and yet, people walk around thinking that they’ve got it already, certain that they know the way while the road to a better future is paved by those who are willing to ask the Savior the right question: “Lord, we do not know the way.” Clearly, we don’t. We don’t know the way to equality, and what we think we know about people who look different than we do is keeping us from getting there. We don’t know the way to peace, and what we think we know about our enemies is keeping us from getting there. We don’t know the way to heaven, and what we think we know about heaven and who is going there is keeping us from it. Let us be bold then, to ask the Savior for directions. Today you’ve been given another ribbon. This one is supposed to be orange. You might be looking at the color ribbon you received thinking, “Whoever called this ribbon orange doesn’t know his colors. Maybe he should go back to preschool.” Gold looked like orange when I picked it out, I’m sorry. What I want you to do with your whatever colored ribbon is this: write down a question you’d like to ask Jesus. Did you know that you can do that? Of course you can, because your questions, your needs, your secrets, your shames, your fears, they won’t keep you from having a relationship with our God. Voicing them to Him is the way to start one. “I AM the way, and the truth, and the life,” which means you don’t have to be. You don’t have to have it all together to be worthy of his love. You don’t have to know it all to be precious in his sight. Take security in his boundless love and ask. Write your question, and find that in trusting Him with it, you’ll receive from the Lord far more than an answer. Amen.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

I AM the Good Shepherd

Scripture Lessons: John 10: 11-18 and Psalm 23 Sermon title: I AM the Good Shepherd Preached on June 27, 2021 Thank you for being willing to go out on a limb with me. I know that many of you have that memorized. Others, like me need to cheat. Memorizing has always been a little difficult for me. It’s one of those things that makes me so nervous that my brain sort of short-circuits. I remember vividly an assignment to memorize and recite the Emancipation Proclamation in 9th grade history class. At some point during my recitation, I drifted into the Pledge of Allegiance. Anything like that ever happen to you? A lot of us have a sad public speaking story. I heard a statistic, that there are more people whose number one fear is public speaking than anything else. That means that there are more people whose number one fear is public speaking than there are whose number one fear is death. Quoting this statistic, comedian Jerry Seinfeld said, “That means most people would rather be the one in the casket than the one giving the eulogy.” I don’t know how exactly to make sense of that, but I believe it, because what’s true is that fears don’t have to make complete sense to hold us captive. We can be afraid of things that aren’t even real because fear isn’t entirely rational. The question I pose to you this morning is, what do you do about it? What or who bring you comfort? Years ago, before we had kids, we had a dog we treated like a kid named Ramona. Ramona was scared to death of thunder. During one thunderstorm we couldn’t find her and thought maybe she had run away. Searching the house, we finally found her nestled with some dirty clothes in the front-loading washing machine. Have you ever heard of a dog doing that? It sounds crazy, but then you think, how much safer the washing machine is during a storm than the couch. Now our dogs just snuggle up real close to us on the couch when they’re afraid, and probably, if a tree fell on the house or something like that, they’d be better off in a washing machine. But more than that, if there’s a scary storm moving over our house, the whole household might end up on the basement couch: two dogs, two girls, two adults, all together. I don’t know what any of them think Sara or I could do for them during a thunderstorm, still, they’re there with us because they’re scared and being close to us makes them feel better. That might be true in your house too. Do you have dogs or cats or kids who huddle up next to you when they’re scared? And is that true of you as well? Is there someone whose lap you remember crawling up into? Or is there a person, who just the smell of his aftershave, makes you feel safe? Is there a house that makes you breathe a sigh of relief once you walk through its doors? Does the smell of mothballs or ivory soap remind you of a person who made you feel comfortable enough to really talk about what was bothering you? “I AM the good shepherd,” he said, and his presence makes his sheep feel safe. This is the fourth Sunday in a row of a sermon series focused on the ways Jesus describes himself, and what I’ll always remember about this “I AM” statement, the fourth of eight that we’re focusing on this summer, is that Pope Francis once said, “A shepherd must always smell like his sheep.” What he means by this is that he’s close enough to smell like us. That when we’re scared, he’s near, unlike the hired hand who runs away to save himself when trouble looms. It’s because of this proximity, his familiarity, that he can cast out our fear. That’s a wonderful truth, which matters today, because today, there’s a lot to be afraid of, but what do we do about it? These days it’s like the whole world is swallowed up in fear. Just think about how often you’ve been seeing words like stress and anxiety. Those are two palatable words that adults are willing to use to talk about their fear. Grownups aren’t supposed to be afraid. No one likes to admit that they’re scared, so we use words like stress and anxiety, even though anxiety is just fear essentially. However, it’s worse than fear because anxiety is a feeling that fills your body without a clear source. Anxiety is fear without knowing what you’re afraid of. It’s always better to put a word to it or a cause. Parents know that, and so they’ll always ask their kids, “what are you so scared of?” On the other hand, sometimes the girls will notice that I’m tense and kind of quiet. They’ll ask me what’s wrong, so I’ll tell them I’m just a little stressed. It seems like I used to be stressed about certain things: sermons, projects, staffing, annual reviews. Lately some days I’m just stressed, and I can’t seem to put into words what it is that I’m stressed about. I just am. Can you relate? It’s a little bit crazy to be afraid without being able to say what we’re afraid of, but you can imagine how we got this way. When we were kids maybe we’d wake up from a nightmare and would call for one of our parents. If we were lucky one of them would rush in. Mom or Dad would ask, “Honey, what’s the matter?” “I had a nightmare,” we’d respond. “What was it about?” one of our parents would ask. And this is kind of an embarrassing question to answer. Are you just supposed to come out and say, “I was in my classroom but only had on my underwear”? Can you just say out loud, as a grown-up, “I was being followed by a legion of life-sized caterpillars who were trying to eat me”? I guess it depends. How well do you know the person who asked? Can you trust him with your fears? Can you speak it out loud in her presence? I hope you have someone you can talk to about the deepest concerns of your heart. Life gives us heavy things to carry around, while so many people won’t let anyone share the burden. Why? Because we don’t always trust the smell of the people who are asking. There’s a virus out there, sort of. Who can you talk to about it? I don’t know. That’s a scary thing to just start talking about, because if you drive into the city, they’re scared of you if you don’t have a mask on. If you drive north of here, they think you’re crazy if you’re still wearing one. Some are watching the spread of the Delta Variant while others are obsessed with getting a good deal on a Delta flight. Jobs are changing, the economy is changing, people are moving, so much is up in the air, and it’s hard to know exactly what the future holds. More than that, it’s hard to know who you can trust to talk to about your worries for the future. “I AM the good shepherd.” What does he mean by that? He means, I’m with you. If you’re scared, come on and climb up on the sofa with me, and tell me what you’re so afraid of. I won’t laugh. I’ll just listen. I won’t judge. I’ll just be here. You can tell me. “I AM the good shepherd,” he said, and he can cast out our fear so that we can get on moving towards where we are destined to go. Yesterday I read about a child of our church who hit a big milestone. James Whittingham is a baseball player and early this season he made a goal for himself: 100 strikeouts. Those strikeouts are good because he’s a pitcher. That’s a big goal that he accomplished this weekend, and I admire him for it, not just that he did it, but that he was willing to say what he wanted to do out loud. The danger in saying something like that our loud is that you might not ever do it. Voicing your dream is a risky thing because you don’t know how people might respond, and once you’ve put it out there some people will be looking for you to fail. That’s just the truth of the matter, however, if you aren’t willing to say where you want to go, I’m not sure you’re very likely to ever get there. If fear holds you captive, you’re like our dog Junebug who stands at the top of the stairs, too afraid to walk down them to get to where her food bowl is. Once again, we’ve been given a ribbon. This time the ribbon is green. Why? To represent the green pasture that the good shepherd leads his sheep to. Today I invite you to write a word down on your green ribbon a place you want to go, a thing that you want to do, a state of wellbeing that you hope to achieve. Whatever or wherever it is, write it down, and as you write it down imagine that you’re in a place where you’re safe, like a couch or a lap or in someone’s arms where you can smell their smell and sense their presence and be reminded that fear is just a feeling which only holds us captive so long as we let it. It happened to me four years ago that fear was cast out enough for me to dream by a smell. Four years ago, last weekend I was in the final stages of accepting this position to come and be one of your pastors. In order for a pastor to do that, he or she has to be examined by the presbytery to make sure everyone understands what they’re getting into. This Presbytery was worried that I didn’t understand that the church I’d be serving in was a different place from the church I grew up in. They were worried I didn’t know what I was getting into. Of course, they were right in a sense. A lot has changed over the last several years since I graduated high school, but I told that Presbytery, that this church still smells the same. I’m not kidding. There’s a stairwell in this church that smells exactly the same way now that it did when I was a kid going down to Sunday school, and four years ago that smell reminded me that the Good Shepherd I was introduced to in this church when I was a child is still with me and I don’t need to be held captive by my troubles and my fears. I remembered that this week. I had to remember it again, because it’s been a very hard year and half for me and for us all, though I’ve realized again recently that my fears are only holding me back if I let them. Sometimes I am so afraid that I forget who is with me, who is with us, and I fail to remember what’s been promised. Namely, that “nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Not famine. Not hardship. Not powers. Not height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation. Not COVID, not politics, not division, not bad news. Nothing. Why? Because he is with us. And we are in his presence now, so write a dream, a hope, a place you want to go or a state of mind you hope to achieve. Write it down on your green ribbon and remember this: plenty of people had their doubts about us, but our church has just been voted the best place to worship in Cobb County for the third year in a row, because he is still with us, and fear will not stop us from getting anywhere we are destined to go. Where do you long to go? Who do you long to be? Free from fear, write it down, and as the wind blows through our ribbons, our prayers will be lifted to Almighty God. Amen.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

I AM the Gate

Scripture Lessons: Proverbs 8: 1-11 and John 10: 1-10 Sermon Title: I AM the Gate Preached on June 20, 2021 About four years ago we moved here from Columbia, Tennessee. As we moved into our new house the first order of business was building a fence in the backyard for our two dogs, Lucy and Junebug. I worked on this project with the help of a couple new Marietta friends: Clem Doyle and Paul Phillips who volunteered to help me. You can tell now just by looking at the fence which parts Paul was involved in. I remember Clem and me eyeballing the fence slats while Paul got a string and a level going to make sure things lined up precisely. You might say engineers are better at these kinds of things than attorneys or preachers. To this day, four years later, it’s still a very good-looking fence, and I can’t put into words how much it meant to me that Paul and Clem would come over to help me build it, however they couldn’t help me with everything. Even with their help there were a couple things I had to do on my own since it was our fence. For example, no one else could choose where the gates would go. “I AM the gate,” Jesus said. If you have a fence in your backyard think about it for just a moment. Where did you put your gates and what does your gate mean to you? What are the gates there for? Who goes through them and why? In our backyard one gate opens into the yard of the next-door neighbor. The day we moved in we were greeted by them. Their names are Dan and Leeanne. I remember how un-neighborly it felt to immediately build a fence between us so soon after meeting them. We didn’t mean to fence them out, we just wanted to fence our dogs in, so I put a gate there from our yard to theirs. We built the fence and the gate and, on their side, now are stones lined up to make a path. They built up a flower bed on either side of the path that leads to our gate in their yard. We built the gate, and they built a path. Today it’s like an invitation to go from one yard to the other. “I AM the gate,” Jesus said. What we know is that he is like an open invitation from God to be in relationship. What’s required? Who is fenced out? He makes the way clear and invites us all to come in. Jesus spends all this time trying to convince us that a relationship with God is not nearly so complicated as we had imagined, and I wonder if we imagine a relationship with God much be complicated because relationships with people are. We’re always asking: who should I let in? How much should I let them in? Will they disappoint me? Will they take advantage of me? Do they like me? Relationships require a lot, so I think it’s good to be in charge of the gates around our yards. It’s not good for a family not to have any boundaries or limits. If we didn’t have a fence our dogs would be eating out of every neighbor’s garbage can and our children might be too. It’s important to have a fence. Rev. Joe Brice will remind us from time to time that we humans need boundaries the same way that cells need a cell wall. Without a cell wall the cell has no identity. The same is true of us. Without some limits we become blobs of availability, victims to the circumstances around us, so we must have limits, boundaries, and fences. Right across the street from our house there was a house with a swimming pool in the back. The family put up a flagpole to send out a signal to the neighborhood: when the flag was up that meant any who wanted could come over and swim, but when the flag was down, that meant that the gate was closed. The family needed time to swim, just them. That makes sense and we must all decide on the gates of our own homes while recognizing who is the gate into the Kingdom of Heaven. There’s an old story that goes like this: A Presbyterian died. He was welcomed into heaven by St. Peter through the Pearly Gates and he met an Episcopalian he went to college with right away. The Presbyterian was really excited to see his old friend, but the Episcopalian told him to keep his voice down. “Why do I need to be so quiet in heaven,” he asked. The Episcopalian answered: “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.” You can make that joke about Baptists or whoever you want. It’s true in one sense for all of us. We all get tied up in debates over who is in and who is out as though the Kingdom of Heaven were a bigger version of our own back yards. It’s not. “I AM the gate,” he said, and we could all stand to learn a thing or two from him when it comes to the gates around our own homes and lives for leaving people out can hurt them. Have you ever been left on the outside of the gate? Years ago, this church supported me as a missionary intern to Argentina. There I lived with several Argentinean college students who were nice enough to befriend me and help me make my way around the city of La Plata. One Saturday night they thought it would be fun to take me to a dance club. It was the only time I’ve stood outside of a club hoping the bouncer would let me in. My friends encouraged me to speak English very loudly so that the bouncer would notice that I was American. Being American will get us in a lot of places, but not this particular club in Argentina, apparently, because we never made it inside. Have you ever been fenced out? “I AM the gate,” Jesus said. In one parable he spoke of great banquets hosted by a bridegroom who invited wealthy, upright, wellborn guests to a party though they chose not to show up. The bridegroom went to the streets then, and invited society’s cast-a-ways. The poor, the homeless, the rejected, the ones who are left out and left behind. The ones we are slow to invite in ourselves. “I AM the gate,” he said, and we must consider what kind of a gate this savior is. We all need to think about who he invites in and who has been kind enough to invite us in. “I AM the gate,” he said, and I’m prone to believe that what he means here is something like what author and journalist, Kelly Corrigan meant in her graduation speech at the Walker School just a couple weeks ago. She told the graduates to remember that more than wealth, influence, or career accomplishments, the true source of human happiness comes from meaningful relationships. “I AM the gate,” Jesus said. In that simple statement he reminds us that there is something sacred about walking into our neighbor’s yard. That there is something miraculous that happens to children when they know they are safe to run from one house to another. That something special happens when we fire up the charcoal grill. The smoke doesn’t respect our fences. Our neighbors wonder what we’re cooking, and it makes us happier to share of our abundance than to eat it all ourselves. Years ago, I cut grass for a living, and I cut grass for a company who never wanted to pay us over time, so on Fridays we’d often get sent home early, having already worked our 40 hours. That meant that sometimes the men I worked with would invite me over to their apartment for lunch. These guys were from Mexico. The six or seven, they all lived in a one-bedroom apartment to save money so that there would be more to send back home to their families. After going to the liquor store to cash their checks we’d have lunch, most often tacos, cooked by who ever happened to be in charge of the meal that day. Only once did I invite the group over to our place, also a one room apartment that just Sara and I shared. I cooked something and offered them a beer I had made myself. I was into homebrewing beer back then, and I thought that was a special thing to share. Only one of the guys said to me that the special thing about it was that this was his first time being inside a white person’s home. “I AM the gate,” Jesus said. What he means by this is not exactly clear, but I believe it is clear enough to point us towards thinking about large and small ways that our lives might change if we spent more time thinking about who we let into our homes and our lives. I think that’s important, because when I think for just a minute about those moments where I felt the genuine hospitality of a stranger, the genuine hospitality of a stranger who would become a friend, I could feel that something sacred was happening, because genuine hospitality is nothing short of a miraculous thing. “I AM the gate,” he said. Too often we go looking for God on pilgrimages to the Promised Land. Too often we think that finding God demands climbing to a mountain or fasting and praying for days on end. But let me remind you that Jesus said, “when two or more are gathered, God is present,” so if you want to glimpse Jesus this week, just think about the places in your life where there is a fence now but there could be a gate. Once again you have a ribbon. This is the third Sunday in a row when your pastors are asking you to do a little something different. Each Sunday this summer we’ll be asking you to write something on a different colored ribbon and to tie those ribbons on the chicken-wire structure just outside the church. Today your ribbon is gray or silver, to help all of us think about the gate, and today I’d love for you to write the name of a person who you pray would let you in. On this Father’s Day I’ve been thinking about John. John is not my father. My father’s name is George, but were it not for my father, there would be a fence between John and me, but instead there is a gate. What happened is that John and I were playing baseball in Laurel Park when we were 8 or 9. He was playing catcher without a facemask. I was batting without knowing how to lay my bat down after I hit the ball. The pitcher pitched, I swung and hit, then slung the bat right at John’s front teeth. I couldn’t get out an apology. I just remember all John’s blood on the grass and all my shame in my belly, but Dad was sure John would not hate me forever, we didn’t need to move away, and I could play baseball again. Dad was sure there could still be a gate and with those simple words that he pushed me to say, “I’m sorry” miraculously there was one. Where do you long for a gate? With whom? Write their name down on your ribbon, and as the wind blows through our ribbons our prayers will be lifted to the one who by his grace is “the gate.” Amen.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

I AM the Bread of Life

Scripture Lessons: Deuteronomy 8: 1-9 and John 6: 35, 41-51 Sermon title: I AM the Bread of Life Preached on June 6, 2021 Today begins a sermon series that will last the summer based on what Bible scholars call the “I Am” statements. On several different occasions Jesus tells those who are listening who he is using statements like the one we just read: “I AM the bread of life.” On this communion Sunday we recognize that this statement is both a metaphor and a fact. When he says, “I AM the bread of life” we know that he’s not just like bread. He is the bread. Even more than the mother bird who made a nest outside our kitchen window and flies back and forth all day feeding her two chicks, we don’t just thank the one who “gives us this day our daily bread” today. We gather around the table remembering the one who loves us so much he offers us his body and his blood. I AM the bread of life. That’s love in a most profound sense, and we know he loves us by this gift that he provides. Not everyone loves us that much. “I AM the bread of life,” he says, and as he says it we know he loves us even more than the waitress at Red Lobster who brings those delicious biscuits to the table ruining our appetite. Do you know the biscuits I’m talking about? In the ancient world, in the culture of ancient Israel and Palestine, bread wasn’t like that. It wasn’t a treat. It wasn’t something that you had on special occasions. Back then, when people thought of bread they weren’t thinking about carbs, they were thinking about the most basic form of sustenance. The most basic staple at the dinner table. When Jesus says bread, he’s talking about the grain of life. It’s what rice is to so much of Asia, what grits were to our Southern fore parents, not what French Fries or chicken nuggets are to our kids and grandkids. Bread isn’t junk food in the sense that Jesus means it, though sometimes we think that the ones who provide us with junk food must love us the most. That’s why, when I make the girls desert, I give them as big an ice cream scoop as I can. I do that because I want to be their favorite. I also want them to know how much I love them, but there is another parent who loves them so much she wants to make sure their teeth don’t rot out. “I AM the bread of life.” Bread is solid, it’s nourishing. It’s not what you want but what you need. The ones who love us the most supply us with bread. I think about Jesus saying, “I AM the bread of life” and I remember this story that author Ann Lamont tells. She said that she was at a women’s Bible study and the leader invited the women at the table to think of someone who was like Jesus to them. Who embodied the Gospel to you? Who revealed to you God’s love? Well, they went around the table and you can imagine what people said. One woman talked about how when she was growing up her grandmother lived right next door. When she’d had a bad day at school, she’d first stop at her grandmother’s house on her way home and somehow her grandmother seemed to know that she would be coming, and just as she walked in the door grandma would be pulling chocolate chip cookies out of the oven. “She was like Jesus to me,” she said, and you can imagine what she meant. Another told about her old golden retriever who was always there, bringing comfort, all through her divorce. Another talked about her sister. Another her faither. On and on, amazing tales of kindness until the last woman at the table spoke: “Who has been like Jesus to me? That’s a hard question to answer because Jesus loved people so much that he always told them the truth even if they didn’t want to hear it. To answer this question, I have to think of someone who loved me so much that he was so honest with me that I wanted to kill him?” That’s bread. That’s a particular kind of nourishment. Certainly, we all need the warmth of a grandmother’s chocolate chip cookies or the comforting presence of a good dog, but there is a powerful love in honesty. There’s a love in bread that’s more than the love in junk food. Have you ever thought about how much junk food there is in the world? How many people, how many of us, only read the journalists we already agree with? How many of us think we’re watching the news, but it’s not really the news because it’s not really the truth? I tell you, if you can watch it without it making you uncomfortable it’s not bread. It’s junk food, because it doesn’t nourish us though it tastes good. It’s not bread and it’s certainly not love, because the people who have really loved us sit us down to tell us those uncomfortable truths, like: “You’re just wrong, and I don’t love you any less but you’ve been wrong for a long time.” “I hate to say it, but you really have been drinking too much, and I’m worried about you.” “I don’t want to be the one to tell you this, but you’re showing up late and leaving early, and I love you and this organization too much not to bring it to your attention.” Of course, it’s easier for me to be told that I’m doing a great job all the time and that I’m perfectly wonderful, but that’s not enough and it’s not the truth, so, I have two kinds of friends. One kind who will take my side no matter what and are glad to tell me that Sara is always wrong, and my boss never appreciated me, and another kind of friend who I call when I’m ready to hear the truth. This is the kind of friend we have in Jesus. He is the bread of life. He is not the fast food, fill you up then leave you empty, tastes good but clogs your arteries kind of savior. I AM the bread of life he told them. That’s different, and people don’t always like it. The religious authorities of the day certainly didn’t like it. Our Scripture Lesson just calls them the Jews. That’s not an exact title, because not all the Jews were giving Jesus a hard time, some of the Jews were following him and one of the Jews was him. What we know about the Gospel of John was that it was written so long after Jesus’ death that the author had distanced himself from the Jewish community and wasn’t familiar enough with all the major players to call them by name. I say that just so you know that some people within every community don’t like the truth tellers. People haven’t changed very much over the last 2,000 years, so even today some people try to silence the truth tellers. They’d rather be fed fast food all the time. I guess we all would, though a diet of fast food doesn’t give us the energy we need to change, and like the Hebrew people, wandering around the desert, not sure how to get to the Promised Land, for months now we’ve been living in a Pandemic. There’s a way out it seems, and I tell you how to find out which of the voices in our world are telling us the truth. It’s the ones who don’t tell us what we want to hear, but what we need to hear. Who loves us enough to tell us take our medicine? Who is like the bread of life? When you walked into the worship service this morning, with your bulletin came a brown ribbon. This is my first time buying a whole bunch of ribbons. It’s hard to find enough brown for this many people. I tried to convince some church staff members that the colors I was able to find easily, tan and burnt orange were close enough to brown. They didn’t buy it. Then I tried to just cut them straight across and if you got one with ugly edges, I cut it, if you got one with a nice diagonal cut Natalie Foster probably did it. What I want you to do with those ribbons is think for just a minute about someone who has been like bread to you. It could be a doctor who told you a hard truth and helped you to make some changes. A teacher who wouldn’t put up with your excuses. A friend who dared to hold up a mirror to you and held your hand as she did it. It might not have been what you wanted but it sure was what you needed, to paraphrase the Rolling Stones. Think about a person who has been a gift from God to you, not because they were just kind, but because they helped you become a better you. Think about someone who has been like Jesus, the bread of life, and use a pen in the pocket of the chair right in front of you to write their name on your ribbon. As for me, I’ll be writing my wife Sara’s name, because she always loves me enough to tell me the truth, but I’m also writing George on my ribbon today. Back at Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, the first church I served as a pastor, a mother once asked me to baptize her baby. I told her I would, but then the Senior Pastor told me she wanted to do the baptism. I said that would be fine, but no one ever told the mother which pastor would be doing the baptism. Right up at the front of the church, this mother tried to hand me her baby but the Senior Pastor took the baby instead. She baptized him in front of the whole church, while his mother starred me down like I’d just broken her heart. I told George all this the next day over breakfast. He was a young pastor then too, and I said, “Can you believe that Senior Pastor? Can you believe she wouldn’t just let me do the baptism? And why didn’t she call the mother?” George wasn’t hearing any of that. He just looked me in the eye and he said, “Joe, you messed up. And I mean, you really messed up. But it’s going to be OK, because I know you’ll make it right and you won’t make this same mistake again.” In that moment, George was like Jesus to me, because he told me the truth that I needed to hear. He spoke the words that helped me do better be better, both as a better man and as a better pastor, and so today I’ll be writing George’s name on my ribbon, giving thanks to God for him. At the end of the service, we’ll all go outside and will tie our ribbons on a structure that has chicken wire that Tim Hammond and Howard Swinford built for us. As the wind blows through our ribbons in the coming weeks, the wind will lift our prayers of gratitude to God for those who have been like bread to us. Our prayers of gratitude for nurturing us with the true bread from heaven and food of eternal life. Take just a moment now, as a prayer of thanksgiving, to write down the name of someone who has been like bread to you. Amen.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Too Light a Thing

Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 49: 1-7 and Acts 2: 1-21 Sermon Title: Too Light a Thing Preached on May 23, 2021 Week before last I had an incredible opportunity. It was career day at the Marietta Center for Advanced Academics and I was one of the featured guests. Honored to have a table right beside Dr. Bob Harper and his daughter Mandy who were there to tell those kids what being a dermatologist is all about, I laid out my Greek and Hebrew Bibles and my preaching robe, prepared to inspire some 5th graders to become a pastor. Interestingly, I think that examining moles and protecting people from skin cancer made a lot more sense to most of those kids than anything I had to say. One of those kids saw my robe and thought I dressed up like Harry Potter for a living. Noticing how many kids were confused by my vocation, about half-way through the morning, Bob asked if the kids had asked me any interesting questions, and they had. “Have you really married people?” on wanted to know. “Yes, I have.” “Have you ever cried at a funeral?” Absolutely. Or the most interesting, which was asked in just the faintest whisper: “How likely is it that someone could be possessed by a daemon?” That was a hard question to answer. I told her it was very rare, though if she wanted to talk more about it, she should give me a call, and I gave her a business card, which felt like a cold response, but I’m not used to being asked that kind of question. Presbyterians don’t often talk about such things. Among the Christian denominations we’re sometimes called the frozen chosen. We don’t talk much about hell or daemons. We don’t often clap either, we rarely lift our hands in praise, we tend to be so science led and rationally minded that we leave things like exorcisms and snake handling to those who speak in tongues. I’ve heard a woman speak in tongues only once. We were both chaplains at the Metro State Women’s Prison, and the Holy Spirit fell upon her, and she began to prophecy. For me, this was an otherworldly experience. As a white, southern, college educated, Presbyterian, speaking in tongues is not in the repertoire, however, speaking in tongues is neither foreign to Scripture nor to the Christian tradition, so today we celebrate it a little bit. Today is called Pentecost Sunday, which is a lesser-known holiday. Earlier this week Sara asked me if we were going to sing more hymns nobody knows. Yes, we are. The Pentecost hymns aren’t as popular as Christmas carols but we still have to sing them. This is the second Sunday in a row where the Church celebrates a less popular holiday. Last Sunday we celebrated Ascension Sunday, the day when we consider that line from the Apostles’ Creed: “the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven,” and today we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit given to the disciples not long after Jesus ascended. It’s called Pentecost and it’s worth celebrating too. Today we read in the second chapter of the book of Acts: They were all together in one place, and suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Can you imagine? That’s what today is all about. This momentous event. It’s a day worth celebrating, but that doesn’t mean it’s familiar or understood, for while there are plenty of Christmas movies on the Hallmark channel, no one is making any Pentecost movies. I can imagine why that is, but our brothers and sisters in the Pentecostal Churches would love a few good Hallmark movies about Pentecost, so I’ve been kicking some ideas around. Imagine a movie with a plot like this: An old man gets his house cleaned every day by a woman who speaks only Spanish. They can’t understand each other, but then one day the Spirit comes and he can speak so that she can understand. They fall in love and live happily ever after. Or a Dad has trouble connecting with his preteen daughter. He tries to sound cool, saying things he’s heard her say to her friends, like “pop-off” and “yeet” but it doesn’t work, until the miracle happens and suddenly all her daughter hears is how much her Dad loves her. I could keep going with these movie ideas. I have more, however this is what I want to emphasize. What we’re celebrating today is not only that the disciples are suddenly able to speak in languages they didn’t know before. That’s part of it. The other part is that the crowds there could understand. In the words of Rev. Anna Traynham of Shallowford Presbyterian Church in Atlanta: the miracle isn’t that people spoke. People speak all the time. The miracle of Pentecost is that people were understanding each other. That’s truly a miracle. These disciples had been all together in one place. The Spirit came and they were all given this incredible gift, but the gift didn’t just enable them to speak in languages they’d never spoken in before. They were speaking and the crowds were understanding. It’s there in verses 5 and 6: “Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” It’s not just that the disciples could speak, it’s that others were able to understand. And so I ask you, shouldn’t we spend more time thinking about Pentecost? For how many among us are capable of speaking? How many out in the world have something to say? How many puff themselves up with their proud opinions? Who get on their soap boxes and will spout off at any captive audience? Plenty will, but Pentecost is different, because the Spirit enabled these disciples to speak in a language that the nations of the world made sense of. Now, back to Career Day at our daughter’s school. As I said, there were kids there who didn’t know anything about being a preacher, and a lot of them were a little wary of me once they found out who I am and what I do, so I had some free time. Fortunately, also with me on career day at Cece’s school was Roy Vanderslice’s daughter Rebecca. Roy and his wife Joan are longtime members here. Rebecca and I were talking about her dad, who will not only invite you to ride in his Tesla, he’s also a language student. Knowing that, I showed Rebecca this app on my phone that’s helping me to learn Spanish and I suggested she get that for her Dad for Christmas or something. She told me that he wouldn’t want it, because he doesn’t really want to learn another language. He just wants to know four or five words in all the languages. When he meets someone, he wants to be able to say, “please, thank you, and nice to meet you” in the language that they speak. Can you believe how beautiful that is? That’s a slice of Pentecost. The disciples spoke in a way that each person understood. People were so honored that God would go this far to speak to them in their mother tongue that they stopped and listened. That’s the miracle of today, and it’s a miracle that matters in a world where so many keep talking while their words fall on deaf ears. How often has it been this way with you? You spoke without fully appreciating who you were speaking with. You were talking but there was no understanding. It happened once with me while I was in handcuffs. Last Sunday I alluded to having been arrested as a college student. That’s sort of true. What happened is I got in a little bit of trouble with the campus police for climbing into a condemned building on campus. Then, by the school paper I was assigned to interview one of the officers who caught me, and for the picture I asked him to put me in handcuffs. I thought it would make a neat action shot. The trouble was that he’d used the handcuffs so seldom that he didn’t have the key. After someone took the picture, for hours I was in the handcuffs as he looked around the public safety office for the key. Then he thought maybe he had left the key at home, so he drove me there in the squad car. And this was the weirdest thing. (Yes, it got even weirder). It was when we got to his house that I really learned who this man was. Every wall of his house it seemed like was covered in certificates of recognition for his public service. Every wall, certificate after certificate, “with appreciation,” “in celebration of,” “with honor and distinction.” I tried to read them all while he looked for that key, which he never found. He never found the key and eventually a locksmith had to cut the handcuffs off of me. I remember it like it was yesterday, not just being cut out of handcuffs, but that I had been writing about this man without really understanding who this man was, and it basically took a miracle for me to get it. That’s Pentecost. A holiday we need to celebrate, for how often do we fail to understand each other? How often in this world do we fail to understand what it’s like to be a police officer? I tell you our country’s lack of full understanding doesn’t stop people from talking. Some criticize the police without understanding how hard their jobs are. Far too many talk about race without any knowledge of what it still means to be black in America. Some think they know. They really think they know, so they talk but as they talk the divide gets wider because they speak without understanding. So, what does the Spirit do? It gave the disciples the words, the words that the world could understand, which is absolutely a miracle that our society needs today. Just think about what’s happening in school boards across our state. Maybe you’ve read about it. Crowds of angry parents show up to talk over each other. If you don’t say what one wants to hear he’ll shout you down without taking the time to listen. It sounds like life as usual in our world today. Meanwhile, there are little girls in our schools who are wondering how common it is to be possessed by a daemon. What Pentecost reminds us of, is that communication, real communication, requires love. That’s what happened so long ago. These disciples weren’t talking so that they could advance their own agenda. These disciples were up there trying to communicate to the world how much love God has for every one of them, and when I say every one, that’s what I mean. Salvation to the end of the earth. Only, let it start in our own homes. Celebrate Pentecost and dare to try and understand your spouse. Dare to love her well enough to really listen. Dare to lovingly speak to the police officer who is a human too. Dare to acknowledge the racism that still surrounds us. Dare to speak of love that the walls which divide our world might come tumbling down. Dare to believe that the salvation of this church is too light a thing, and that the Spirit calls us to the 800,000 out in Cobb County, half of whom have yet to understand the love of God. Be slow to speak. Be ready to listen. Work to understand. And may your words be always abounding in steadfast love. Amen.