Sunday, November 27, 2016

What Time Is It?

Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14


        I suspect everyone here knows what time it is. Two days ago was Black Friday. While my wife and daughter moaned about having to go to Short Pump to face the crowds, Deb and Martina fooled no one. They had been planning this shopping excursion for at least 364 days. Someone told me tomorrow is Cyber-Monday. I guess that is Black Friday with a mouse. Any kid can tell you there are 28 shopping days till Christmas. They can also tell you how those days are to be spent, with the operative word being “spent.” First thing I do every morning is to look at my daily calendar to see how my time will be occupied. That too is the correct word. So often we feel occupied by the clock, occupied by the calendar, occupied by the obligations we have made. The crazy thing is most of the ways we spend our time are commendable. You are good people with kind hearts. All I have to do is mention there is a project or need which is church or community related and I am always overwhelmed by your response. You spend your time both generously and sacrificially. Wednesday night a church member who lives by himself had an unfortunate fall. After spending the day in the hospital he was going home with his arm in a sling and his body many shades of blue. He clearly needed help and because of the holidays, home health could not begin until Monday. From his bedside at the hospital I made one phone call. Fifteen minutes later I received word that eight of you had agreed to drop by and check on him through Monday. I know everyone of these busy folks had set aside time to celebrate the holidays. And yet a need was eminent and so time stood still.

        Sometimes, we are able to control time. But I suspect more often than not time controls us making it necessary to figure out how to be both in and out of time. We have to learn to look beyond today and figure out what tomorrow will bring. Those of us who are still punching a time card are very envious of those of you who have retired. From my perspective it seems you have it free and easy, getting up at the crack of noon, doing whatever you please, whenever you please. But then I sometimes get a chance to peak into your very busy lives. Retirement meant you just stopped working for the boss. Your days remain full, very much run and predetermined by a most demanding clock. So regardless if you are fully employed or generously retired we all still answer to the tyranny of time.

        The season of Advent dares to challenge the concept of time as something we calculate in minutes, or hours or even days.  The season of Advent dares to us move beyond personal gratification and focus our hearts and minds on the purest concept of the goodness of God.

Well that sounds good in theory but if there has ever been a time that we are captivated by time it would have to be the month of December. Deb and I sat down last week to find a day we could run to Richmond to do our Christmas shopping. After looking at our calendars the only time we could find was one lone Friday. Think of it, 28 days till Christmas and only one was free. And even to make that day possible we had to reshuffle our schedules. How can we stop and think of Christ? We are too busy doing Christmas?

Paul had a simple solution. Of course that is one his problems. Paul made highly dogmatic proclamations which might look quite commendable when hidden away in his Holy Epistles but are often terribly impractical when exposed to the light of day. Paul said, “Don’t let the burdens of life interfere with how you conduct your life. Stay focused, not on the task of the day but rather of the promise of tomorrow. Jesus is coming soon. The day of salvation is closer than you think. Look to Christ and the problems of this world will grow strangely dim.”

When Paul started that pep talk he was convinced the Second Coming was just around the corner. He knew he would see Christ before he saw death. But as Paul grew older he certainly must have wondered why God wasn’t cooperating. Good friends wrote to Paul informing the Apostle of the death of a loved one and wondered why their dearly beloved had not been resurrected to a new life. Paul was forced to reconsider earlier claims. He began to preach, “In life and in death we belong to God.” But he still clung to the notion that the second coming of Christ was near.

This is one of the reasons I consistently remind you to never limit yourself to just the New Testament. The message of God’s love and grace were first presented in the Old Testament and purpose of the New Testament was to expand on those gifts as understood through the life and death of Jesus. In practical terms, the poets of the Old Testament were dreamers. The writers of the New Testament were theologians. The Hebrew people loved stories and understood God through the telling of the story. The New Testament writers emerged from a Greek culture that valued the analytical. Reason and logic ruled the day. Unfortunately there was nothing reasonable or logical about the concept of resurrection. Paul must have often been asked a dozen times, “We hear your theory on the resurrection of the dead, but until you can prove it, we have no reason to accept it.” Paul responded, “Soon Jesus will arrive and you will see with your own eyes.” While it has never happened, thanks be to God, a culture of faith emerged celebrating what could not be seen or touched.

That faith has survived for 2,000 years, not by a belief in analytics, but rather in a joy of hearing the story told. When we sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, I doubt there is anyone singing with the thought that Jesus will arrive in all his glory before the 25th of December. But we still sing, hoping for a glimpse of a heavenly vision that will stand in resistance to our understanding of relative time. We sing, praying for a vision of God’s peace that will transform our warring madness. We sing, pregnant with the expectation that perhaps this Advent season will truly be holy. We don’t sing the book of Romans. We sing the poetry of Isaiah.



God will judge between the nations

and arbitrate for many people.

They shall beat their swords in plowshares.

They shall beat their spears in pruning hooks.

Nation shall not life up nation against nation.

Neither shall they learn war anymore.

Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.


Have you ever thought about the idea that Jesus came to earth once and really doesn’t want to return until we begin to exhibit some effort toward bringing about the peace God so deeply desires? That is why we light the Candle of Hope. Hopeful people are not only aware of the obstacles that make life difficult, they work toward changing the circumstances that made those obstacles relevant.  Hopeful people spend Advent, and beyond, working to fulfill God’s holy dream. Let us together light the candle of hope.  Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Thank God!

Luke 23:33-43; Col. 1:11-20


        When I was a child, Thanksgiving was a big deal. First, it was a three day school week. I eventually grew to love the vigor of the academic challenge…..somewhere around my last year in college, but as a kid, I viewed school as an unnecessary evil. Second, Thanksgiving meant a trip to Waynesboro where I got to hang out with my favorite cousin. I grew up in a family with three younger sisters. Having another guy around for a day or two was heaven on earth. Third and most important was the food. Between my mom and Aunt Evelyn there was always a table so bountiful left- overs lasted for days and no one ever complained. At the conclusion of the feast my cousin and I would head back outside till dark, burning off calories and readying ourselves to devour more turkey and pie. On reentering the kitchen I would notice two aged women who vaguely resembled my mother and aunt. I would wonder why they seemed so tired and burdened on this festive day. Now, nearly 60 years later, as Deb and I joyously anticipate the arrival of a boat load of family, I suspect Deb will have the same glazed look on her face come Thursday evening. Through the years I have come to understand a full appreciation of Thanksgiving begins by giving gratitude to those who are weary and burdened.

        You know the story of the first Thanksgiving? Oh, I am not talking about the feast at Plymouth Rock or even an earlier celebration in Jamestown. I am talking about the one that happened years before America was inhabited by any Europeans. I am speaking of the conversation between two men suspended against both the sky and time as one said to the other, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

        Our crucifixion text seems so out of place as we prepare to stuff both the turkey and ourselves in the coming days, but this morning is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent. Christ the King Sunday and the texts that compliment it often seem in conflict with our celebrating Thanksgiving. On the surface, what does a conversation between two condemned men have to do with giving thanks? Perhaps there is none. Yet if you will allow me to take what some might characterize as an inappropriate hermeneutical leap, I believe there is an unmistakable intersection to be discovered.

        Who was the man being crucified with Jesus? We really don’t know yet his identity is more complicated than one might suspect. While the ethics of the Old Testament reflects an eye for an eye mentality, it was almost impossible for a person to be put to death under rabbinical law. The first reason was theological. Life is sacred.  To take the life of another was considered to be against the will of God. Second, the taking of a life was impractical. Jewish law is based on reimbursement. If I kill the husband of a family and am executed, who is going to be responsible for the financial welfare of the family?  It is explicit   in the Talmud that the one committing a crime must be punished in a way that compensates the family.

        Therefore, we can conclude the man hanging beside Jesus was being punished by Roman rather than local law.  Perhaps he stole from the Romans and his punishment sent a message to the general population. Perhaps he was a revolutionary plotting the overthrow of Roman occupation. Perhaps he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe the man deserved to die. Certainly he was not innocent for he admitted guilt. It hardly matters. He looked to his left and saw the shell of a burdened, yet innocent man suffering his same fate and he asked to be remembered.

        A few years ago I walked into the sanctuary of an ancient Presbyterian church located in Eastern North Carolina. In the center of the sanctuary was an old mahogany communion table. From a distance there seemed to be nothing remarkable about the table, but as I moved closer I could see the carved words, “Remember Me”.

        Those words, certainly in the context of communion, have a double meaning. When I break the bread and lift the cup I often use the word, “Remember”. Certainly I am asking us to remember the sacrifice of Christ. But when we come to the table, like that not so innocent passenger on the train to paradise, don’t we also desperately need to be remembered. Then once we realize…or remember…the restorative power of God’s grace, we give thanks. 

        Isn’t this the very purpose of Thanksgiving? It is a day when we take a break from our routine to remember, and then respond to the generosity of another. Looking back to the settlers of either Plymouth Rock or Jamestown, no feast would have occurred without remembering both the graciousness of God and the sacrifice of those who did not make it to the table. For without the sacrifice of the tired and the burdened, is a day of Thanksgiving even possible?

        An unknown man, stranded between heaven and earth, saw something holy in the burdened face of Jesus. And a blessing was received. A hungry family, anxious to dig into a meal over which they did little to prepare, sees something  saintly in the tired face of the one responsible for the feast. And a blessing is received.

        I am hopeful this Thursday, before the first plate is served, we will all bow our heads and give thanks to God. Such thanks are richly warranted. Much sacrifice was offered in the preparation of our taste of paradise. As you pray, do not forget the one who made the feast possible through her labor of love. As we pray, do not forget the one who made paradise possible through his labor of love. Each time we pray together, allow our prayers to remember the weary and the burdened that have made all that is good possible. By doing so, you too will be remembered.

Sunday, November 13, 2016


Luke 21:5-19, Isaiah 65:17-25
        “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified for these things must happen first. Nation will rise against nation; there will be earthquakes, famines, plagues, and great signs from heaven.”
While these are not exactly comforting words from our Lord and Savior,    I will be honest with you. As I pulled myself away from the election results early Wednesday morning I pretty much convinced myself the words of Jesus were about to come true in our life time. This shows both my naivety and political bias. Of course sharing my disappointment with Tuesday’s results surprises none of you.  I ranted and raved until about 8:00 a.m. when I knew I could either hide or take my punishment by going to wood ministry.  On arrival it did not surprise me that some of my fellow workers took particular delight in my despair. Like it or not, that is what guys do. Deciding this was no day for a puny gas driven wood splitter, I picked up my sledge hammer and decided to take out my frustration on some very large pieces of oak. With Paul Bunyan-like blows, and the help of an equally frustrated Democrat, Leslie and I made short work of our helpless foes for the better part of the morning. OK, maybe it was closer to 45 minutes, but for every one of those minutes our weapons of mass destruction rang true to their mark as our adversaries quietly observed the tenacity of our rage. And then it was over. Exhausted I sat down and noticed how much work still needed to be accomplished…………… together.
        I am not sure how exactly the folks who created the lectionary came to decide which text would be linked to one another. I am certain the last thing they had in mind was that these texts from Luke and Isaiah would appear the Sunday after a national election. But here they are. The gospel text reads like the manuscript from a Zombie Apocalypse movie. The Isaiah text sounds, well it sounds like Isaiah, a pie in the sky, rose colored version of what the earth ought to be like. Neither seems very realistic yet both might be the perfect texts for this morning.
        Before 9-11, how many of us really believed something like the destruction of the World Trade Center could happen? I remember visiting the twin towers in the late 1990’s. Their prominence on the skyline of New York averted ones eye from the previously iconic Empire State Building. And yet in a matter of hours they were gone.  When Jesus spoke of the destruction of the Temple few folks took him seriously. This was the Temple. It was the center piece of the great city. It had stood for 500 years, surviving both Greek and Roman invasions. Yet by the time the book of Luke was written, the Temple gone, little more than a memory in the minds of the people reading this gospel. This text shone like a beacon to Luke’s readers warning that unimaginable tragedies would shake the very core of their existence. But then it offered this word of hope, “By your endurance, you will gain your soul.”
        For some of you, endurance came in surviving the last eight years. For others endurance will come as we wonder what the future will bring. The folks receiving Luke’s gospel were not much different than us. To some the destruction of the Temple was devastating. Others did not even realize there had been a temple in Jerusalem. What they did know was in the days to come, it was not their faith in a political system that would sustain them but their faith in a God who continually encourages God’s people to strive for a new heaven and a new earth……………. together.
        If anything this election has proven that we are a divided nation. That does not mean that we need to become a divided community. The strength of this congregation has always been its diversity. While the sign outside declares us to be Presbyterians, it is not the theology of Calvin or Knox or Wesley or Luther or Augustine or even Billy Graham that brings us to this place. It is the love of God and the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
We come, male and female, Republican and Democrat, gay and straight, old and older to this sacred place where holy expectations are placed on each of us.
We come, with varied opinions, varied strengths, varied talents and varied attitudes to this engaging place where the needs of a few have always been as important as the wellbeing of the many.
We come, not just because we like each other, but because we are committed to the welfare of each other. Then together we feed the hungry, care for the young, nurture the old, embrace the forgotten and love the unloved.
Isaiah 65 is of my favorite chapters in the entire Bible. The people of Israel have returned from Babylon after generations of captivity. They come to Jerusalem, a city dismantled and sitting in ruins. To recapture its former glory seems impossible because the captives themselves are disheartened and confused. How do you build without a vision? How do you endure without a dream?
The poet speaks, “God is going to create a new heaven and a new earth. The former shall not be remembered. Be glad in what God is about to do.” We have endured two years of folks from both parties promising what they are going to do. Excuse me if I am a little skeptical but I am old enough to remember a lot of elections, and a lot of promises, and a lot of promises forgotten once the election was over. So what does God promise in the 65th chapter of Isaiah?
One – Children will be cared for.
Two – The elderly will be celebrated.
Three – People will have houses to live in.
Four – People will pick fruit from their own garden.
By golly, that just begins to describe what we do. Every week we gather food to insure children will not go hungry over the weekend. Every week we visit the elderly and care for those suffering from dementia. Every week we heat homes so home owners can afford other necessary commodities. Every week we plan new ways to assist folks who want to grow their own fruits and celebrate their own lives. Every week we concentrate, not on yesterday, not on tomorrow but on today. One day at a time, one person at a time, one step at a time we are bring about God’s vision………..together.
Legend has it when Martin Luther was asked what he would do if he knew the world was coming to an end. He responded, “If tomorrow is the Day of Judgment than today I want to plant an apple tree.”
Might I suggest, whether you believe the Apocalypse is upon us, or the veil of darkness has finally been lifted, we go out and plant an apple tree…………………together.
To God be the glory.       Amen.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

So What About Heaven?

Luke 20:27-38


        Some folks are convinced every answer to any human dilemma can be found in the Bible. I don’t happen to be one of them. Those same folks also live with the illusion God will answer all our questions if we are faithful enough. I believe more in God’s faithfulness than my own but that still doesn’t make me privy to the mystery of God. Some things simply cannot be proven, only believed. That can be both the strength and the heartburn of any belief system.

        At our pub theology meeting last week John Savides asked the group if hell existed. Now this is an interesting group that has gathered every second and fourth Thursday at Bold Rock. Most are members of this church but some of the folks have no connection with any organized faith. When John asked the question I wanted to excuse myself and run for something to drink. I knew all eyes were eventually going to stare in my direction. Since I don’t drink, I figured one glass of anything would put me under the table. At least if I was inebriated, I would not be held accountable for anything I said. Fortunately, with this group my voice doesn’t hold much authority so I was able to listen to the interesting opinions of others. What I discovered was pretty much what I already knew. When a discussion of heaven or hell evolves, most of our opinions aren’t really all that biblical. Thanks to Dante, Milton, Jonathan Edwards and anyone who has written about seeing a bright light, our most memorable visions of heaven and hell have been created by folks that seem to have a fear of the dark. So what insights does Jesus give us?

While Jesus doesn’t talk much about hell he has a lot to say about the kingdom of God especially in the book of Matthew. Of course on examining those texts, we discover Jesus never speaks about a place with the streets paved with gold or even a gate where St. Peter examines the credentials of anyone who would enter. In fact the more we examine Matthew the more we realize Jesus was talking about how our lives down here on earth need to be more like the kingdom of God. That’s the problem with Matthew. Everything is spoken of on a spiritual level. If we want to get down to brass tacks, we need to turn to the Book of Luke.       

The classic text concerning heaven is found in Luke 20.  The Sadducees had just grilled Jesus on paying taxes and were a bit disappointed when Jesus said, “Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and give to God what belongs to God.” The Sadducees wanted Jesus to come across as some political insurrectionist but his answer hardly raised anyone’s blood pressure, so they figured they would trip up Jesus with a theological question.

Jesus had begun to talk about resurrection, a concept the Sadducees believed to be heretical.   They weren’t satisfied to just tell Jesus he was crazy. They wanted to embarrass him in front of the masses. Taking a text from the book of Deuteronomy, the Sadducees tried to show Jesus how ridiculous the concept of heaven sounded. They asked him a riddle. A married man had seven brothers. According to the Law of Moses if the man should die, one of the brothers would be responsible to step up and marry the widow. Well what if the brother who married his dead brother’s wife died.  And what if this happened seven times until all eight brothers had married the woman and left her a widow. Then, after burying eight husbands, the woman died. The question asked was, if there is a heaven, when the woman arrived, who was her husband?

These sounds like a question that comes from someone in a Sunday school who loves to present ridiculous scenarios just to get a rise out of the rest of the class. I am sure you have all experienced this. One of the favorites used to be, “If a child is born in Africa and never is exposed to the story of Jesus, will the child go to hell?” That question has been asked so many times it amazes me that we don’t have 10,000 missionaries in Africa. Of course the reason is no one really cares about the child, only the argument.

So the Sadducees, full of themselves after asking a question with no logical answer, sat back and waited to hear the teacher’s answer. There is no way they could have expected to hear what Jesus said. “God is not a God of the dead but of the living.” In other words Jesus said, “How can you make jokes about something you know nothing about?”

Death is serious business. This year we celebrated the resurrection of Kemp, Ralph, Ann, Barbara, Frankie and Sarah. Such an interesting choice of words we use, celebrate the resurrection. I vividly remember each of those “celebrations.” Each death seemed too soon. Each service exposed a sadness that blunted our celebratory nature. Yet we fervently clung to the belief that the journey of those we loved for a moment or a lifetime will continue into God’s eternity. Each time we come back to the grave, we need to be reminded that God is the God of the living because the weight of death is often more than we think we can bear.

The Sadducees could joke about death because at that moment none of them were on the way to a funeral. They could joke about death because the words of this itinerate preacher seemed ridiculous. But death is no laughing matter. It has touched each person in this room and it will touch us again. Yet what we must hold onto is not how our cherished ones died but how they were loved, for in the grand scheme of things isn’t that what really matters.

I loved grumpy old Kemp when he laughed. I loved reserved Barbara when she didn’t have to be “the lawyer.” I loved prim and proper Ann when she worried about Doug. I loved Ralph because he never met a stranger. I loved Frankie every time he told the same story. I loved Sarah just because she was Sarah. What we loved about of these folks continues as we live out the story of our lives. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, “Everything will eventually come to a close, except love, and love never ends.” 

I believe God is the God of the living. To be more exact, I believe God is the God of love. This puts no time limit on how long God loves us because God’s love is forever. 

If you must ask me about heaven, I must warn you I don’t have a clue. Are there streets of gold? Well that’s one’s person’s version. Will we know our loved ones when we get there? I can’t tell you. Mary Chapin Carpenter calls it, “A place with a ‘to die for’ view.” Poets are usually better at stringing words together than the rest of us. What I believe is that God is the God of the living and not the dead. What I do believe is God transcends death by loving us more than we would deem possible. Therefore I believe whatever is beyond death is most certainly crafted by the imagination and love of God. That in itself tells me not to worry about it. 

To God be the glory. Amen.