Sunday, August 28, 2016

Making America Humble

Luke 14:7-14


        I am completely confused. Being a political animal I hang on every word uttered by our Presidential candidates. I chew on their comments. I let them rattle around in my brain while trying to form an objective opinion based on my understanding of how I believe God would have me live. This year’s election is giving me a real headache. One candidate claims he will make America great. His opponent claims America is already great. Jesus claims the objective is not to be great but humble. Some would suggest this is why we have separation of church and state. Matters of the nation should never be discussed from a spiritual perspective. I am quite certain Jesus would disagree. There needs to be a separation of church and state in order that we have the freedom to consider the moral condition of our nation. Are we a great nation? Obviously that seems to be debatable. Are we a humble nation? Are you kidding me? Would a little more humility make us a great nation? Jesus seems to be suggesting it would not hurt.

        I am well aware nowhere in the 14th chapter of Luke does Jesus suggest he is trying to heal a nation. He is just making casual observations about dinner parties.   (I hope there is no one here that really believes that.) Jesus is always challenging us to wrestle with difficult issues by   using everyday examples to bring us into the conversation.

        While I know very little about etiquette, I seemed to get invited to a lot of weddings. It sort of comes with the job. I have noticed folks who arrange these celebrations spend an awful lot of time on seating arrangements. In the good old days there was a table for the bride’s family, a table for the groom’s family and a table for the wedding party. Today, everybody gets a place setting. That gets a bit complicated. Let’s say Betty Jo is getting married to Billy Bob. Betty Jo’s mother was divorced when Betty Jo was two. Where does the father of the bride sit?  Billy Bob’s father is on his third marriage. Where do the three wives sit? How many tables do you set aside for all the grandparents?

        Then there are the complications of having a wedding party. More than once I have officiated a wedding where the best man and the maid of honor were “best friends forever” when the save the date magnet was attached to everyone’s refrigerator. Before the wedding dress was bought, they became the next hot item. Unfortunately, the week of the third bridal shower, they had a fight and broke up. So where do you sit them? Truth is, where do you sit anyone? 

Jesus was sitting in the back of a room watching people claw over each other trying to get the best seats. One of the disciples said, “Jesus, if we don’t sit near the front? I don’t think anyone  knows we are here. Why come if no one notices us?”

        Jesus responded, “The host invited us and he knows we are here.” Then Jesus made a mistake. Now I know some folks would argue Jesus was perfect, but clearly he misspoke when he uttered his next words. “If you start out in the back, the host will notice, reward your humbleness, and move you closer to the dinner table.” How many times have you seen folks putting on the face of humility in order to be moved up the social or corporate ladder? Isn’t this is just another form of arrogance.

        Let me give you a classic example from my line of work. Next time you are at a fellowship dinner at any church, watch the minister. It is one of our humility tricks. Clergy always go to the back of the line. Everyone must be fed before us. That way we stand out and our humbleness is celebrated. We are just waiting for someone to call out, “Pastor, come up here in the front of the line before we run out of fried chicken.” We forget humbleness celebrated is hardly humbleness at all. Secretly we all want to be noticed. Secretly we all want to be seated at the head of the table. And if Jesus gives us a strategy to make it happen, isn’t that all the better.

        Fortunately, Jesus can be wrong but not wrong for long. Perfection has a way of quickly perfecting itself. Once Jesus sees his back of the line mentality has been misunderstood he upsets our status quo by saying, “If you are asking me to comment on proper etiquette, I believe the wrong people have been invited to this party. If you really want to do the right thing, invite those folks who never get invited. Send an invitation to the poor, the blind, and the cripple. They are really the ones who love to be invited to a party.” The folks who understand this are the real saints in our midst.

        As you all are aware, we lost a saint this week. Many of you knew Sarah as the heart and soul of the first service choir. She picked the music, kept up with our busy schedules, nursed our bruised egos and sang like an angel. But her role in the choir did not award her sainthood. She was a soprano. It is hard for sopranos to be humble and with a very good reason. They sing higher than the rest of us and without sopranos there would be no one to sing melody. 

        A few of you are aware Sarah gathered with others each Monday morning and prayed for this church. This was a real act of humbleness in which these folks set aside the beginning of their week in order to ask God to be with this congregation and community. It is a gracious and selfless act. But even this was not why Sarah attained sainthood.

        Once upon a time, probably because she had a father who loved foreign missions, Sarah began to go on mission trips. When she became a member of Rockfish, she went on one of our Mexico trips where a lot of good work was accomplished. But Sarah struggled with those trips. I her eyes it seemed like the haves were working for but not with the have-nots. Then Sarah went to Guatemala. Suddenly she was thrust in a situation of complete dependence on folks she had never met. Trust me; Sarah was not the type person who liked things spinning out of her control. But in Guatemala, Sarah’s very livelihood was placed in the hands of folks we might consider poor and illiterate. Sarah embraced the women of Guatemala as they embraced her. Then she made it her mission to help us to see the love of God in folks we hardly ever think about. Through the humbleness, generosity, and faith of the women of Guatemala, Sarah found her soul. She desperately wanted others to experience her epiphany. Admittedly many of us never quite understood why the Guatemala trip was so important to Sarah. All I can say is thanks to her, the folks who spent time in Guatemala will never view issues of poverty, or racism, or even immigration the same. We now see the world as one big dinner party where everyone is invited. It is a round table. The guest of honor is anyone who is seated. Amazingly, every time it seems like there is no more room, a few more chairs arrive and no one is left without a seat.  This was Sarah’s gift to us. This is why she became a saint. When she threw a party, everyone was invited. All she ever asked was the acknowledgement that each of the guests is our brother and sister. Such is the nature of humility born from God’s grace.

        We will miss you Sarah.                                      Amen.

Sunday, August 21, 2016


Luke 13:10-17



        Any time I want to get a rise out of folks my age or older all I have to ask is, “Remember when Sunday was sacred?” A massive litany of stories erupts from our memory banks.  Here are some of my favorites.

        “My mother would not let us play outside on Sunday. We just went to church and then sat in the living room looking at each other.”         Or what about, “Movies, cards, or any kind of board games were forbidden on the Sabbath. Remember this one. “All the stores were closed on Sunday.” My favorite is, “We went to church in the morning then came back in the evening. It seemed like the whole day was church.” And of course no list would be complete without, “Remember…. not the Alamo… not the USS Maine, but, “Remember the Blue Laws.”   Many believe the fall of American culture began with their removal.

        The amazing thing about Sabbath stories is no one seemed to enjoy the restrictions and yet now that all the boundaries have been lifted we lament the “good old days”. We question why no one else seems to understand the importance of Sabbath like we church goers do. Maybe the problem is we don’t understand it ourselves.

        In the Creation myth, the part we all remember is, “On the seventh day, God rested.” This holy siesta became sacred tradition with the introduction of the 10 Commandments. By the time Jesus arrived, observance of the Sabbath was completely out of control. Sabbath meals had to be prepared the day before. The care of crops and animals was suspended. There was a limitation to the number of steps one could take on the Sabbath and presumably they were just enough to make a round trip to the synagogue. In our gospel text, this is where we find Jesus. He was the guest preacher.  The town had gathered to hear his words of wisdom. But things didn’t work out according to plan.

        One of the faithful that morning was a woman who had a bad back. Most of us know what it’s like to get out of bed and not be able to straighten up. We blame it on pulling too many weeds or in my case swinging to hard on the golf course. The muscles around our spine become irritated and require some Advil, a little stretching, and a few days off from yard work or trash detail. The woman in the gospel story had suffered for eighteen years and I suspect she came to church hoping for more than just being inspired by the music or a children’s sermon. She wanted a miracle. And that is exactly what she received.

        Now you might have thought the congregation would have been delighted, but instead they gasped in disbelief.

        “Jesus worked on the Sabbath. Jesus broke the Fourth Commandment. Who does he think he is?” Isn’t it interesting that those folks had no better idea of how to keep the Sabbath than us. They were the descendents of the very people who invented the idea that you should work 6 days and then rest.  The Romans had no such custom. It infuriated the Roman that the Hebrew people took a day off. There were roads to build, aqueducts to construct, and people to conquer. If their workers rested on the Sabbath, it made them look less like an Empire.  Strangely, the complaints by the Romans defined the reason for the Sabbath much better than the folks who actually observed the day of rest. Sabbath had become one of many rites performed by a people dedicated to lifelong rituals. Many could not even remember why they rested. But Jesus knew, and Jesus responded to the ills of the woman, because his action was at the very heart of the Sabbath tradition. Jesus freed the woman from that which enslaved her.

        The history of the nation of Israel began in the mud pits of Egypt. Before Egypt, they were just a bunch of folks from many different families that headed south when a draught hit. They had no permanent home. Jacob referred to himself as a “Wandering Aramean”. Eventually they all came together in a slave camp. Their captors called them by a single name, “Hebrew”, which probably meant, “Folks from the other side of the river.”  There was nothing magical about the name. I was born in Georgia. Some of you were born in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, or New York. We have some remarkable cultural differences but if we all got on a plane and flew to Paris, we would be called Americans. The Egyptians didn’t care if the Hebrews ate grits or bagels for breakfast as long as they showed up for work seven days a week. That work, that slavery, dominated their lives. They feared doing anything other than making bricks would result in death. When you do something non-stop, 24/7, there is no time for family, no time for yourself, and no time for God. The Hebrews forgot the stories of Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. The Hebrews forgot the promise that God would always be with them. They forgot everything but the work that enslaved them. In desperation, in agony they cried out to anyone who might hear them. And God responded.

        You know the rest of the story. Out of the very house of Pharaoh, a Hebrew boy became a Godly man.   Banished to the wilderness, Moses returned to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery. Once freedom was secured Moses handed the nation of Israel ten laws for righteous living. At the very center of these commandments was placed the following, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor but the seventh is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.” What a gift to a people who knew nothing but work.

        Many of you might be thinking, “What does this passage have to do with me? I am retired. I put in my lifetime of answering to a boss. Now I enjoy life. I play, spend quality time with my family and neighbors, and sleep in anytime I want. On Sunday, if I am in town, I faithfully fill this pew.”

        That is true and those of us who are still working are very envious. But retirement doesn’t mean you are released from the need for Sabbath time. It was not just work that enslaved the Hebrew people. It was Pharaoh. It was the idea that no matter who they were or what they did something disturbing would dominate their life. Let me tell you, not even retirement can free you from Pharaoh.

        Anxiety can work on you 24/7.

        Feeling inadequate can enslave you in a heartbeat.

        Righteous anger about something that happened yesterday or a thousand yesterdays ago is a cancer that will ravage your soul.

Believing someone is always plotting against you will wear you out.

        And then there is guilt. Is there anything more destructive than guilt?  We allow ourselves to be manipulated by guilt. We manipulate others with guilt. And then we feel guilty about being guilty.

        Thank God for Sabbath. Thank God there is something bigger than our anxiety and inadequacies and paranoia’s. Thank God Sabbath is the day we are commanded to kick guilt from the deep recesses of our inner most psyche. Thank God we are commanded at least once a week to let go of all that stuff that enslaves us. Thank God we are offered the opportunity to look beyond ourselves and offer praise to the Creative Genius who celebrates each new day with the words, “You are good.”

        Those folks in the synagogue were working so hard making the Sabbath holy they completely lost sight of the joy Jesus was bringing into their lives. A woman was enslaved by pain and Jesus released her from a lifelong bondage. The congregation should have leapt to their feet and cried, “Thank-you Jesus. Free Us, Free Us.”

Instead, the leader of the synagogue, the one disguised as Pharaoh, pointed his finger at Jesus and said, “You have brought the wrath of God down upon us. There are six other days designated to heal the sick. Could you not have waited until tomorrow?”

Jesus responded, “Once we celebrated the Sabbath as the day we were released from bondage.”  Hearing those words, everyone jumped to their feet and rejoiced. 

What a gift the Sabbath can be. Once a week, we the people of God come together to celebrate we are not enslaved by Pharaoh. Sabbath can and should be a day away from the expectations of 24/7. Sabbath can be and should be a day to set aside our anxieties, guilt and anger. Sabbath can and should be a day to remember that we, the community of faith, are not alone. Sabbath can and should be an opportunity to say, “Thank you Jesus. Set us Free.”   







Sunday, August 14, 2016

This Doesn't Sound Like Sweet Little Jesus

Luke 12:49-56


        What is the most important entity in your life? For some it is something material like a house or a piece of property. But most of us draw on a deeper reservoir. Many of us have a special relationship with our family. I suspect children and grandchildren rate high on the list. Deep and lasting friendships are both rare and precious. And to a few, the preservation of a greater good occupies holy ground.

        When World War II arrived the war was not just fought on European soil. Families struggled with why their young men should be enlisted in a conflict overseas. The town of Cedartown, Georgia was no exception. My grandfather was foreman of the cotton mill and clerk of session at the Presbyterian Church. When the time came to create a local draft board, my grandfather was asked to chair the commission.  This one man was given the power to decide who would stay home to work for the family and who would be placed in harm’s way. In order to preserve the integrity of the process my grandfather selected my father as the first “volunteer” to go overseas. My grandfather could not risk the life of a neighbor without first jeopardizing the life of his own flesh and blood. While I have heard the story a number of times, I have never had the courage to ask how my grandmother responded to her husband’s decision. Maybe she was proud of the difficult pronouncement her husband had made. Maybe she internally raged against a choice which could have cost her a son. If we hold something to be precious, often there is a price. Sometimes the price is our loyalty to self, or family, or country or even to God.

        The words attributed to Jesus in our gospel reading are difficult to hear. “I did not come to bring peace but rather division between fathers and sons, between mothers and daughters.” We live in a world divided. We are separated by religion, race, culture, and economic status. Voices bombard our TV sets with hate. I have escaped to the broadcast of the Olympics just so I can avoid the explosion of bombs and tempers that dominate the news cycle. In the midst of all this rage comes Jesus’ painful word promising family division. Is this the holy edict which will quell our increasing turmoil? They seem to only throw gasoline on the fire. Yet the words of Jesus challenge us to remember a solution to our ever evolving situation is a lot more complicated than arguing about e-mails or income tax returns.

        A basic belief of our faith is God sent Jesus into the world. Now why would God send perfection into our imperfection? The answer is painfully simple. God did not send Jesus to validate the social realities and values of the existing culture but rather to argue for a better way.  Pax Romana was based on a system that favored authority at the expense of those who were powerless and expendable. If God has been a fan of Augustus, Jesus would have been born in Rome and the Senate would have unanimously declared him the next Caesar. But that is not how it worked. Jesus was born in a backwater town in the midst of economic strife and political discord. Jesus was born where there was no peace, fully aware that the road to a reversal of attitude would be painful. Jesus was born in the midst of human sin, a condition we don’t like to talk about but a reality still alive and well today. Jesus was born with a divine agenda of mercy and justice designed to shatter the existing status quo. It was an agenda which was not embraced then and is seldom embraced today. To speak of mercy makes one look weak. To speak of justice makes one seem delusional. So we don’t speak about either fearing the conversation might drive a wedge between those we dearly love.   Our inaction abdicates speech to mad men and mad women who have little to say about mercy or justice or the road to God’s peace.

        What is justice? What is mercy? Ask any two people and you receive a dozen different answers. Perhaps an even more inflammable question would be to ask what is justice and mercy from a biblical perspective. When one is asked to address a question biblically, permission seems to be given to allow the answer to come from ones personal perspective. It never fails to astound me how folks who can’t tell you if Isaiah is in the Old or New Testament, nonetheless have a clear perception of the mind of God. It is as if their personal relationship supersedes the 66 holy efforts to grapple with the depths of God’s psyche.

        What is justice? What is mercy? Ever notice how much time we spend on God’s justice or God’s mercy TOWARD US?  Yet as I read scripture, the context in which both these words are used overwhelmingly places a sacred burden on our relationship with others. Do we act justly toward the widow, the poor, sojourner, the outcast, or the powerless? Do we show mercy toward the one who has hurt or defiled us? If this is the message Jesus CONFIRMS, is it any wonder Jesus predicted he would bring conflict rather than peace?

        Let’s think about this carefully. When I am right, too often I act as if your opinion hardly matters. When I have come to the correct conclusion for any difficult question, your additional input becomes a waste of my time. As harsh as these words sound, I doubt I am the only person in this room who suffers from the delusion of our analytical perfection. The truth is my opinions can be quickly dismissed because I have a well documented track record of being wrong and second, they are the opinions of one who first and foremost values MY welfare and MY world view.

        When Jesus spoke he did so without concern for his own welfare. When Jesus spoke he articulated no economic or political ambitions. When Jesus spoke his words often clashed with the prevailing view of the status quo. When Jesus spoke he did not converse as a property owner but rather one who owned an authentic understanding of the mind and will of God. And his words cost him his life.

        Our words can bring discomfort. Our words can enrage. Our words can even be spoken on the behalf of others. But how often do our words cross the line between life and death? We love ourselves too much to risk our life for another, particularly if “the other” is flawed, or a stranger, or not particularly thankful for the salvation we bring.

        Not so with Jesus, yet his words continue to divide households and cause disorder even among friends. What on earth are we to do? I know our easy answers are usually the wrong ones. I know our desire to fight for the poor while living in castles is a bit hypocritical. I know the words of Jesus are dangerous and they are primarily aimed at us. And yet I know Jesus is as close to God as I dare imagine.

        So I flee to the Psalms. “Restore us, O God. Let your face shine that the world may be saved.” Sometimes the face of God, the words of God, even the Son of God seems so distant from the rage in our streets, the rage in our political campaigns and even the rage we might occasionally feel toward one another. The author of Psalm 80 lived in a time of political unrest.  In this chaos the poet offered a desperate plea to the one who is capable of saving us. Despite the risk, this shall become my prayer.      Amen.   

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Installation of Elders

Hebrews 11:1-3


        Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. Most people want more than that. Folks drawn to lottery tickets or vacations to Las Vegas justify their appetites with the expectation that against all odds, they will strike it rich. But few do. Yet here we sit, believing in a God we cannot see and in a story that defies all common sense.   God Became Human. REALLY? In real life the goal is upward mobility, not a step down.

        The good news is that we who are dreamers yearly elect rational elders to hold our feet to the fire when our heads and hearts tend to soar into the clouds. Today we celebrate the election of these stalwarts of rational thought. In your wisdom you have elected two lawyers, a counselor who specializes in drug and alcohol abuse and a recently retired emergency room nurse practitioner. These are folks who have lived in the real world. Try as we might we will not be able to pull the wool over their eyes with our irrational dreams and schemes. At least that is what we would like to believe. Let me introduce you to these good folks.

        Ann the Lawyer comes to us from Northern Virginia. Her reason for being part of a church is rather simple. Ann wants to rescue the world, one person at a time. She is a person clinging to God’s desire for justice and righteousness. Many of you got a taste of Ann’s obsession when she preached a couple of weeks ago. She wants to save every child that has been abused, every refugee that has been displaced and every family that has suffered a catastrophic loss. The scary part is she believes it is possible.

        John the Counselor is a hippie who holds the Bible in one hand and a copy of Yellow Submarine in the other.  He is convinced, All We Need is Love. John wants to take us outside the safe confines of this sanctuary and sit with folks over a cup of hard cider and discuss this intangible notion that God is love. He believes this universal truth overshadows any of our worn out dogmas. John wants us to kick our heels back and start conversations that begin with respecting what others think. He wants to explore new ways of engaging folks in this community God created.

        Leslie the nurse wants to heal folks, but this time she is taking the gloves off. She wants to get dirt under her finger nails. I observed this when I traveled with Leslie to Guatemala. No one worked harder with her hands and no one works harder with her head to evaluate our missions to other folks. Leslie joined the Hunger Committee at Presbytery. She is a vital member of the folks involved in Lovingston’s monthly food distribution. She is a founding member of the Garden Hose, a group that wants to create a community garden next to our wood pile. Leslie is driven by her head and heart. But she works with her hands.

        And finally there is our second lawyer.  Mary Dudley is a long time member of Rockfish but I suspect many of you hardly know her. She is really weird. She brings a hard boil egg to worship in case my sermon goes too long.  Truth is she would rather be working with the wood ministry team. She daily rides her bike on the Skyline Drive and occasionally camps out up there to get over her fear of bears. She goes to the nursing homes and stays with folks who don’t even know she's there just so they won’t be alone.  What she does best is think about life. As the session discovered last week she writes about good days and bad days and how God seems to be intricately involved in both. She doesn’t offer answers, just observations. She dares to say what many of us think but would not dare speak. She observes more in the ordinary that most of us imagine in the extraordinary.

        These are the folks you elected to be your new class of elders: A Dreamer, A Lover, An Activist, A Poet. I have only one question.               WHAT WERE YOU THINKING!!!!!!!!

The session is supposed to be a serious group where serious people think about serious problems. You seem to be suggesting this church is in the business of believing in the assurance of things hoped for and the convictions of things not seen. I guess that is what happens when you hang around folks who faithfully listen for the Holy Whispers of God. Perhaps this is why our Church is so amazing. You trust God, you trust each other, you laugh together, you cry together and you don’t mind getting a little dirt under your finger nails. Let us celebrate the Class of 2019 by having them come forward for their ordination and installation.