Sunday, December 24, 2017

Isaiah 2:2-4
“Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
        It was eight years ago, the day before Thanksgiving when the rains began to fall.  This was not just a passing shower but a dreaded Nor’easterner, packing winds of 40 miles an hour.  Deb and I had driven to Norfolk to pick up our daughter and grandchild at the airport.  Martina and Andy had found a flight and we all planned to spend a couple of days together with Deb’s parents.  It was a glorious plan until the rain began to fall.  By the time we got to Hampton the roads were being swallowed by water with no place to go.  As I pulled into my father-in-laws drive way, I knew from similar storms we were safe, but stranded.  It rained all day Wednesday, continued on Thursday and finally quit on Friday.  We had electricity, which was a blessing, but much of the town including all the major roads were under a couple feet of water.
        How do you explain to a soon to be two year old that you cannot go outside?  For Andy, walking was a newly discovered freedom and he was ready to exercise his liberated limbs.  Wednesday through Friday he wore out the rug and tile in my in-laws house traveling around and around and around through the kitchen, living room, hallway and den.  By Saturday morning I was ready to teach him how to swim.  But thankfully, or so I thought, the waters had receded.  
        It was my daughter that came up with the grand plan.  Not so innocently she remarked, “We need to let Andy run around a bit.  Since we can’t take him outside, let’s hop in the car and find a Mall.  That should be good exercise. Who wants to go?”  Instantly my wife, mother-in-law and daughter were headed for the door.  Then, with the precision of synchronized swimmers they turned, and said, “Come with us. Andy would love to spend time with his grandfather. We will only stay a few minutes.”
        The first shopping mall was built in Kansas City in 1922. The first enclosed mall was opened near Minneapolis in 1956.  The first mega mall was developed in Edmonton with 800 stores, a hotel, amusement park, zoo, and a 438 foot long lake.  In these 88 years of Mall development the least kept promise has been, “We will only stay a few minutes”.
        Off we went; three women, a husband/father/son-in-law, and a baby.  As soon as we entered the hallowed halls I knew my grandson and I were about to spend a lot of quality time together.  We watched as the three women disappeared from our sight and I wondered if they ever would return.
        What do you do with a young child when stranded in the middle of a place straight out of Dante’s Divine Comedy?  We walked for a while.  That proved dangerous particularly when the child thinks that every piece of merchandise needs to be touched.  We drank juice and ate cheese crackers until we both had our fill.  We even raced the stroller through the halls which proved to be great fun until the Mall Cop asked us to slow down.  Eventually Andy fell asleep.  Since I had foolishly left the book I was reading at the house, I sat and observed the rituals people perform during this time we fondly call the holidays.
        While we were in the mall two days after Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims had long been forgotten.  The air was filled with Christmas songs of all flavors just loud enough to be heard above the constant roar of the gentle masses.  I watched as families gathered in long lines for their Kodak moment with Santa. I noticed all the splashes of green, red and gold that seemed to highlight each display window.  The Christmas Spirit was certainly in full gear.  Then I noticed the people.
        Some folks were there just to get out of the house.  They passed us innumerous times, always carrying something different purchased at the food court.  It is amazing how much we eat during the holidays even when we are not hungry.  Then again maybe we are hungering for something other than food.
        Some folks wore the hardened expression of a shopping warrior. They were looking for the perfect gift at the perfect price and they were determined to find it.  I wondered if their campaign to discover perfection continued when this day’s quest had reached its conclusion.
        Some folks had a glazed, exhausted expression of fatigue.  Maybe they had been shopping warriors when the day began but now they were tired and weary.  Maybe they had come to the realization that this holy temple only offered superficial answers to their genuine problems.  Maybe, during the season of Christ, they were shopping for the wrong gift.
Some folks were really loud.  Every word, every physical expression was bigger than life.  They lorded over their companions and yet the endless chatter seemed inane, as if they had nothing to say but were determined to say it very loudly.  Isn’t amazing how the most holy words are often discovered in the silence of a deserted barn in a forgotten village.  
I closed my eyes and begin listening to the music.  Bruce Springsteen was singing my favorite rendition of “Santa Claus is coming to town.”  Then, in a radical transition, my ears were filled with a jazzy version of Dave Brubeck playing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”  In the midst of people who were hungry, a people searching for perfection, a people with weary and cluttered lives, the gift of grace was freely floating through the air as an answer to the confusion of a wayward people.
Come Emmanuel, fill our spiritual hunger; Come Emmanuel, direct our misguided quest; Come Emmanuel, bring light to our darkness; Come Emmanuel, speak your  words of peace. 
My grandson woke up, and he was very, very hungry.
Aren’t we all?    Aren’t we all?           Amen.  

Sunday, December 17, 2017

What Does Mary Want for Christmas?

Isaiah 61:1-2; Luke 1:46-55


There are seven more shopping days till Christmas. Remember when that created a panic. We had only a day or two to fight the crowds and hope beyond hope that our desired special treasure was still on the shelf. Today we go on a computer, or our phone, and punch a couple of buttons.  Deb even has Amazon Prime so we don’t have to pay postage. A couple days later the door bell rings and the gift arrives. If I could just find someone to wrap my acquisitions my Christmas experience would be complete.

        But even with all these modern conveniences, one problem remains. How do we if know we are getting the right gift? I know it is suppose to be the thought that counts, but there is nothing worse than have the recipient look up with an expression that shouts, “What were you thinking?”  

I used to buy gifts for my niece and nephews. I have what you might call an eclectic taste in music. I felt each Christmas it was my duty to rescue my kin from their limited exposure to the world of song.  I would spend endless hours thinking about each child and how I might be liberate them  from boy bands, drum kits, musical loops, and any singer that had never listened to Etta James, Sam Cook, or Patsy Cline. Each year my nephews and niece would pick up my contribution to their Christmas celebration, roll their eyes, and pretend to be delighted. I once heard my oldest nephew mumble, “It’s not his fault. He’s just weird.”

What is actually weird is what Christmas has become. Remember when Christmas morning was a bit mysterious with no one really knowing what lay wrapped so beautifully under the tree. Today Christmas has become the parental fulfillment of a prearranged wish list. Remember when Christmas was a celebration of grace. It is easy to understand why we fled from years of yore. One of my favorite southern novelists, Flannery O’Conner, wrote, “All human nature vigorously resist grace because grace changes us and to change is painful.”  Our need to know eliminates the possibility of the improbable. And what could be more improbable than the birth of Jesus.

Do we fully appreciate the Christmas story as told by Luke? Like any 14 year old, Mary had her Christmas wish list but it was like nothing that regularly ends up in Santa’s mailbox. Mary asked God to deliver joy to the broken hearted. She prayed, “Let my son bring down the powerful. Let my son lift up the lowly. Let my son fill the hungry with good things. Let my son be merciful.” This child’s uncle definitely had her listening to Odetta and Billie Holliday, or to be more precise the poems of Third Isaiah.

Last week we spent a little time listening to the voice of Second Isaiah. That poet’s job was to encourage a handful of slaves to travel back home. He promised God would level their road.  They believed and they packed up to travel west. They were not prepared to find what was at the end of the rainbow. The Jerusalem they had heard of lay in ruins. For fifty years no one took the effort to restore what had been the gem of David and Solomon. The travelers were disheartened, disillusioned, broken. They had not imagined the task before them. But a second poet arrives. He has traveled with them. He knows their disappointment. He understood the seemingly impossible task before them. The poet sings, “God is bringing good news. Once you were captives and now you are released. Once you were prisoners and now you are emancipated. Now you are brokenhearted, but the God who freed you will also bring joy and comfort.”

Mary knew those words. They had been placed on her lips by that crazy uncle who loved the songs of the prophets. Then she received this crazy angelic message that she was to have a son. Instead of praying for herself and the welfare of her child, she prays that this babe might be a blessing to her neighbors. She prays for a cosmic event that will overturn everyone’s world. She prays for a miracle that will lift up the brokenhearted. She joyfully prays for grace.

Wednesday night in our Advent Meditations we shared one of the great Christmas stories of all time, The Grinch that Stole Christmas. For those of you that don’t know the Dr. Seuss classic, it is about a very mean and small hearted character who tries to ruin Christmas by stealing all the toys delivered on Christmas morning. The Grinch is successful in his thievery but not in stopping Christmas. Instead, the Christmas meal is prepared, the songs are sung and the holiday preserved. The Grinch is flabbergasted. He discovers the joy of Christmas is not about what is under the tree but what is in one’s heart. The Grinch is welcomed into Whoville and his heart grows three times its original size.

Isaiah, Mary and Dr. Seuss understand that Christmas is about binding up broken hearts and making the impossible probable. Trust me, it takes more than a visit from Santa to accomplish this.   How often do we make our way through Advent, sing the songs, listen to the scriptures, and go through all our rituals, only to discover when Christmas is over, our Jerusalem is still in ruins? Where is the grace in that? How easily we forget Flannery O’Conner’s warning. How quickly we dismiss the vision of a 14 year old girl. Grace is hard because grace asks us to believe in something beyond our comfort zone.

Every Christmas I pick up a book of poems by Ann Weems called Kneeling in Bethlehem. She writes, “The Christmas spirit is that hope which tenaciously clings to the hearts of the faithful and announces in the face of any Herod the world can produce, and all the inn doors slammed in our faces, and all the dark nights of the soul, that with God anything is still possible.” When I read that poem I jump up and down and say, “Ann you are right. I’ll just sit right here and wait for God to change my world.”  And then I make the mistake of turning the page. Weems continues, “We are freed to free others, we are affirmed to affirm others, we are loved to love others. We are family, we are community, we are the church triumphant. We are renewed, redirected, empowered to change lives together. We are the church of justice and mercy. We are the people sent to open the prisons, heal the sick, clothe the naked, to sing alleluias when there is no music. This mantle has been placed upon us. Joy is made apparent by how we choose to live.”

There are seven shopping days left till Christmas. We could spend a day of frenzied exhaustion at the shopping area just west of Richmond which I choose to call Babylon. We could hop on the internet and buy something that no one ever needed and pretend we care. Or we could perform an act of grace. Who do you know that needs a moment of joy? You might gather some friends and go sing Christmas carols on the porch of someone who lost a spouse this year. You could bring a cup of coffee to the guy ringing the bell at the Salvation Army display. Maybe he will even let you sit in for a set. Maybe you could invite a neighbor over for Christmas dinner. Even better, invite yourself over and sit in their darkness. If you really want to be brave, introduce one of your grandchildren to Dizzy playing Night in Tunisia. It can be cool to be the weird one in the family. The point is, find a way to bring joy into someone’s life. It is not all that difficult. The hard part is going back the second time. But that is when they learn that you really love them.

To God be the glory.     Amen.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Beyond the Waiting

Isaiah 40:1-11


Many of you have shared the experience of sitting in a hospital waiting room. I know, because I have sat with you. Even with our advanced intellect, there are certain words such as cancer and heart disease that cause fear and trepidation. As we sit in that waiting room, those words silently lurk behind any conversation.  We make small talk, we try to read, we take walks, but most of all we worry that the message we will receive from the surgeon will not be good. The clock on the wall makes each moment seem like an eternity. Perceived deadlines are missed and our anxiety rises. Then, when it seems our emotions are beyond restraint, the phone rings and we are told the doctor will visit with us shortly. She arrives and despite the technical jargon, what we hear are the tender words, “Comfort, Comfort my people. Everything is going to be alright.”

My favorite biblical passage is Isaiah 40. You might know it through the brilliance of Handel. You certainly have recognized it’s presence in our Advent hymns. But before Christians adopted the text as synonymous with the birth of Christ, the poem had its own perplexing story to tell.

In the 39th chapter of Isaiah, the Judean king Hezekiah was in dialogue with the prophet. Jerusalem had dodged a bullet.  The nation of Assyria had swept across the middle-east destroying everything that stood in its way. Syria and Lebanon had capitulated. The ten tribes of Israel stood briefly against the Assyrian onslaught and were completely destroyed. Every man was slaughtered and every woman raped. The nation of Israel disappeared from the face of the earth.  The Assyrians surrounded Jerusalem and the siege began. Then something happened. The book of Isaiah records that the angel of death entered the Assyrian camp. The ancient Assyrian historical records say that there was a revolt in Nineveh. Regardless the reason, the Assyrians retreated, Jerusalem was saved, and the people rejoiced. 

Now the prophet and the king are having a conversation about the fate of the city. Hezekiah is certain Assyria will return. Isaiah encourages the king to first look inward, suggesting the sins of the people was the beginning of their downfall. But Hezekiah remarks, “We must contact the Babylonians and form an alliance.” Isaiah responds, “Days are coming when your ancestors shall be carried to Babylon and nothing will be left of Jerusalem.” Hezekiah responded, “At least there will be peace in my day.” This is the last verse of Isaiah 39. This conversation happened in the year 703 B.C. The next verse, “Comfort, Comfort, my people”, was written 150 years later. What happened between those two verses? Absolute chaos!

Assyria did come back and Jerusalem became a vassal state. The alliance with Babylon proved worthless. Eventually the power of the Assyrians diminished and Jerusalem found itself caught in the middle of an Egypt and Babylonian power struggle. Jerusalem chose Egypt, giving Babylon the excuse to destroy the city twice. The second time, in the year 586, the residents of Jerusalem were enslaved and forced to march across the desert to Babylon. There they resided for nearly 50 years until Babylon was overthrown by the Persian Empire. Cyrus the Great released the slaves of Babylon and gave them the option to return to their homes. Among these slaves were the remaining Hebrew people. The poet, wanting to assure these children that there would be a tomorrow, spoke these words, Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Cry to her she has paid her debt. 

I am sure you enjoyed that little dash down memory lane but you may be wondering, what does Isaiah 40 have to do with our observance of Advent?  After two generations the grandchildren had forgotten Jerusalem. To a certain extent they had been drugged by the gospel of Babylon and had no real desire to return to a home they never knew. The poetry of Isaiah served to refresh their imagination concerning a God who offered mercy and pardon. The poetry was an invitation to an alternative perception of reality. They had been born in captivity and had never experienced freedom. Now they are encouraged to forsake a culture of death and step into a promise of new life.

Over the past 20 years many leading theologians have suggested that the church is now living in a time of exile. We have hitched our wagons to a new world in which we have substituted numbers for names. I used to be Louie Andrews. Now I am simply known by the digits on my credit card. I fear folks with less than noble intent will acquire access to those numbers and my life will be destroyed.

We have hitched our wagons to pills which promise relief from pain. The cruel results are America is ravaged by an opium crisis. The third leading cause of death for folks between the ages of 15 to 25 is suicide. Recently suicide became the 10th leading cause of death overall.

We have hitched our wagons to consumerism.   This is the prime month. The success of many a company depends on you overloading the stockings and Christmas tree. And the only ones who will enjoy a consumer Christmas are the executives at Visa and Mastercard.

How many folks do you know who are enslaved by fear, or painkillers, or economic stress or all the other factors that accompany life in Babylon? Every day my phone rings with someone who can’t pay the rent, can’t keep the lights on, or can’t find food for their children. It rings so often I am starting to become a cynic who wonders how much money they are spending on beer, or meth, or both.

Are these folks so unlike us? Aren’t they waiting for a word of good news just like we do following the surgery of a loved one? Are these folks so unlike those slaves in Babylon who longed to hear a word of comfort or hope? We try our best here at Rockfish but how often do we leave a house after delivering wood and think, “How are they possibly going to make it?” Taking on the ills of the world will drive us insane. So where do we find a word of hope? 

Isaiah 40 reminds us in order to get from Babylon to Jerusalem a lot of mountains are going to have to be lowered and a lot of valleys lifted up. While I marveled at all the Head Start children who filled our fellowship hall Sunday afternoon I wanted to weep. How many of those children have two parents? How many of those children have parents who can read? How many of those children have parents who are not diabetic? How many of those children have a parent who works full time? There are so many hills and valleys in front of those children. But what are we suppose to do?

The poet in Isaiah promises that God will change the world. Do we really believe that? We substitute Santa Claus for God because Santa can offer joy for a moment. But where is Santa in January? The poet knows how wearisome this world can be. Yet this poet promises, “God does not grow weary. God gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. They will mount up with wings like eagles. They will run and not be faint.”

Those are powerful words but they fall on deaf ears if people of faith have already concluded that God is irrelevant in our culture. What can we do? The fate of so many children seems to already be set in stone.  I fear we have been persuaded by Babylon. We call our situation “reality” and know it cannot be changed.

So when did we stop believing in Christmas? Jesus never preached the world couldn’t be transformed. Jesus never found God to be obsolete. Jesus believed God would find a way to allow children the chance to fly and Jesus believed we would be the agents of that transformation.

Last year on one of our bike rides on the Skyline Drive Mary Dudley introduced me to a friend of hers who believed in Jesus in a very big way. I can’t remember his name so I will call him Fred. When Mary Dudley’s son Daniel was in kindergarten, this Fred decided to give one day a week to Daniel’s class.  When Daniel moved up to the first grade, so did Fred. He did this for 12 years. Fred had made such a huge impact on the lives of those kids they insisted Fred walk the stage with them as a graduate. Think how many lives Fred touched with one simple gesture.

This year was our second Head Start Christmas party. Next spring we will host the second children’s spring fling. Last year the children and parents hardly spoke to us. This year the crowd was larger and the conversations more pronounced. What would happen if each one of us unofficially adopted one of those kids? What would happen if once a week we could be involved in their reading and writing? Maybe in five years they would see us as their academic grandparents. Maybe, with our encouragement, when they enter middle school they would excel. Maybe in 12 years they would be the first person in their family to go to college.  This can happen if we become involved. This can happen if instead saying, “Santa Claus is coming to town”, we promise, “Comfort, comfort, my child. Let me help you step out of this valley. Let me make those hills a little less scary. Let me help you down a road that leads someplace else.”

In Isaiah, the poet asked the question, “How is the glory of the Lord revealed?”

Jesus responded, “One child at a time.”

So how will we respond? With a convenient, “Ho, Ho, Ho,” or a committed, “Comfort ye, Comfort ye, my children.”

To God be the glory.  Amen.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Nervously Waiting

Isaiah 64:1-9


        During this season of Advent I have chosen to preach from passages found in the Book of Isaiah.  While the first 39 chapters cover the life of the prophet Isaiah, the entire book spans a period of over 200 years. It is a combination of prose and poetry written as meditations on the destiny of Jerusalem as it resided within the shifting sands of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian Empires. Writing about the destruction of Jerusalem, exile in Babylon, and finally restoration, these poets speak freely concerning the judgment and promises of God. From suffering to well-being, from displacement to homecoming, the writers of Isaiah understand history through the intentionality of God. Why invite Isaiah into our Christmas preparations? Because no other Old Testament book has had more influence on the NT’s understanding of the coming of Jesus.

        Isaiah 64 begins, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down so that the mountains would quake at your presence.”

        When tragedy strikes often our response becomes, “Where is God?” Let’s face it, what good is God if God is non-responsive. Three weeks ago there was a community gathering to pray for the folks that had been murdered in a Baptist church outside of San Antonio. One minister stood in the pulpit and railed against the forces of evil that dared to challenge the sanctity of Sunday morning. Another prayed endlessly that God would step out of the heavens and place, “a protective shield over his beloved people.” More than one minister claimed Satan had taken over the land. Another vowed to arm himself so that this kind of tragedy would never happen in his congregation. I sat, listened, and eventually spoke, only adding more confusion to the mix.

        Imagine if God responded to all our prayers? Everyone who spoke did so with great conviction. Every person who spoke is someone I know as a person of faith. Yet none of us were anywhere close to agreeing on what we were asking God to do. Furthermore while each prayer was given approval by passionate “Amens” from the congregation, no one seemed to be bothered that each prayer represented a vastly different mindset to an impossible dilemma.

Sometimes prayer becomes an instrument to placate our frustration. We pray, and then turn the problem over to God. This does more than just relieve us from our responsibility. It arrogantly demands God be guided by our emotions and perhaps even our intolerance. Then when nothing happens, God becomes the target of our anger.

This poetic response in Isaiah 64 does not give us that satisfaction. The complaint I hear most often by folks who don’t spend much time in the Old Testament is the “Jewish” God is vengeful and filled with anger. I think a more correct observation would be that the God we discover in the Old Testament is painfully honest. God stands behind the claim if we don’t lie, if we don’t steal, if we don’t commit adultery, if we don’t murder, if we care for the downtrodden, and if we challenge those who individually or systemically work against the well being of the community, then there is a possibility we might live in peace.

That is a very high, perhaps impossible standard that is certainly not universally accepted. The folks of Isaiah’s day who would point their fingers toward the east and say, “They started all the trouble.” Claiming to be innocent they would call on God fix the crisis.  And the response of the Lord would come be, “The problem begins with you.” 2,500 years later that is still not the answer we want to hear.

This morning our bulletin was blessed, or cursed, depending on your perspective, with a call to confession written by Jill Duffield. You might remember Jill preached at Rockfish twice last June. She is an articulate person of faith who completely understands confession as the first step toward wholeness. Her prayer begins, “We hate violence,” and mimicking the poet of Isaiah her initial response is, “Come down here and fix this mess.” But then Jill makes the move that any Old Testament prophet would applaud. Instead of pointing the finger at others, Jill confesses, “We who trust Christ lay before you our failures.”  That is so hard to hear. We want Jill to condemn the young men chanting vile phrases. We want her to place equal blame on the young folks pushing back from the other political spectrum. But Jill speaks only to us. She writes, “Silence in us any voice but yours. Then give us the courage to respond.”

Jill echoes the words of the poet who writes, “O God, you are the potter. We are the clay.” Once we establish our less than equal relationship with God, once we admit that our actions or lack thereof might be part of the problem, once we admit confession might be good for the soul, like that lifeless clay sitting on the wheel we are asked to wait. There is a distinctive reason for this. Before anyone listens, a whole lot of stuff has got to be unloaded.

The poet knows there is trouble. The poet is willing to acknowledge his responsibility for the mess. But the poet also dares to hint that God is equally guilty because he believes God has neglected Israel. The poet needs to release these words, these accusations, and this anger. We who bring a “modern perspective” to this discussion not only accuse God, but often dare to deny God’s existence. But the poet either cannot or will not make that leap. The accusation is spoken. The cancer that clouds his faith is released and then the poet reclaims his relationship with God.  The poet cannot change the past. But now the clay can be molded to shape the future.

During this season of Advent we are called to sit in the juices of our own discontent and take a good long hard look at who we are.

We are called to look deep into our silent rage, perhaps even acknowledging our dissatisfaction with God.

Then, once our discontent and rage have been given the time and respect they deserve, we are asked to consider that we might not be the center of the universe.

Now the real waiting, and healing begins.   

Come Lord Jesus.    


Sunday, November 26, 2017

All the Nations Will Gather Before Him

Matthew 25:31-46; Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24


        I am not ashamed to admit that Matthew 25:31-46 is one of my favorite scriptures.  I have preached numerous sermons on this text and have alluded to it regularly.  How many times have you been challenged by the words, “When you did it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me”?    I remember encountering these words for the first time when I was a child in Sunday School.  In my early years of ministry I preached on this passage and a young woman, barely fifteen, wrote a powerful poem in response to the sermon.  I have kept the poem as a reminder of how influential God’s word can be.

        Now that the text is so familiar, I struggle to find new ways to present it.  What else can I say that has not already been said?  Monday morning, for what seems like the thousandth time, my bible opened to Matthew 25. But this time I actually noticed something I had always overlooked.  Listen once again to verses 31 &32, “When the Son of Man comes in all his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on the throne of glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats.”  For a lifetime I have read that text and somehow have skipped over the phrase, “all the nations”.  I have always seen this text as an examination of how each individual responds to the sick, the lame, the hungry, the imprisoned and the naked.  Certainly each of us should take this text to heart as an individual, but this scripture is much bigger than just me or you.  It is social commentary on our collective whole which passes judgment on the community, the nation, the world.  The text suggests we are all responsible for each other. That is a radical concept which is hardly unique to the overall Biblical message. And as I reviewed the Biblical story I realized Jesus’ pronouncement in Matthew 25  was solely based on  his knowledge of the Torah.

Remember Cain and Abel.  Two brothers took their sibling rivalry just a little bit too far.  Both offered a sacrifice to God.  Abel spent a great deal of time thinking about his relationship and love for his Creator.  The gift reflected his thoughtfulness.  Cain just threw a couple dollars in the offering plate. God’s reaction was a natural response to the seriousness by which each gift was given.  Abel’s gift was praised.  Cain’s gift rejected.  That really made Cain mad.  Instead of begging for forgiveness, Cain took it out on his brother.  Soon after the murder, God arrived on the scene and asked Cain if he had seen Abel.  Remember Cain’s answer?  “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  The unspoken response was, “Yes, in my community, you are each responsible for each other.” 

        This was just the first of many examples of this consistent theme of the whole community being responsible for each other.   Remember the Exodus from Egypt.  If a family did not have a lamb to sacrifice for the Passover meal it was the neighbor’s responsibility to make sure blood was placed over the door protecting both families from the angel of death. Once in the wilderness, the fate of the individual remained tied to the fate of the community. If one sinned, all had sinned. This continued when they crossed the Jordan. Remember the story in Joshua when Achan takes silver and gold after the battle of Ai.  Punishment fell on all the tribes of Israel.   

Years later, as exiles in  Babylon, the prophet Isaiah  dared to suggest that corporately we are responsible for not just the neighbor who might be our brother or good friend but for anyone who is a stranger, an orphan, a widow, or even an enemy.  We are all residents of God’s Kingdom.

        So when Jesus tells the story of sheep and the goats, the implications of the story are grounded within the souls of his listeners.  The parable is not even original with Jesus. It was a retelling of a familiar story his listeners had probably heard as children.  Jesus draws from the 34th chapter of Ezekiel.   At the time of Ezekiel, shepherding was a well established metaphor for the one who governed.  Each king was seen as the shepherd of his flock.  One of the earliest documents in the Middle East is the law code of Hammurabi. It declares the king was appointed to “Promote the welfare of his sheep, cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and keep the strong from oppressing the weak.”  I am sure that is what every shepherd originally had in mind but it didn’t always work out that way. In times of peril, the prophets charged the shepherds with dereliction of duty.  Listen once again to the Ezekiel’s words.  “The lost I will seek. The strays I will bring back. The broken-limbed I will bind up.  The sick I will nourish back to health.”  It almost seems that God is more concerned with the care of the weak, the disadvantaged, the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the prisoner and the stranger than with those who champion religious orthodoxy. 

        So what is going to happen when God gathers all the nations together?  Am I held accountable by your actions?  Or is it just the guys in charge that need to fear the wrath of God?  Trust me, I can complain all I want concerning the state of world affairs and it will fall on deaf ears because who in their right mind cares what I think. But can we ignore Ezekiel and Jesus when they are quick to insist, “The nations will be judged according to how the poor are treated?”

        Maybe the question we should be asking is who are the shepherds in our community?  Surely the churches would be counted among the shepherds in Nelson County.  So perhaps the questions become, “What is the role of the Church?  Who are we called to be?  To whom does the church answer?  Is the church responsible for folks outside its doors?” 

        Quoting from the Presbyterian Book of Order it seems we are called to do three things:

1.  Make disciples and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

2.  Demonstrate our love of Christ through worship, fellowship, a life of prayer, and service under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

3.  Participate in God’s activity in the world by healing, reconciling and binding wounds; ministering to the poor, the sick, the lonely and the powerless; engaging in the struggle to free people from sin, fear, oppression, hunger, and injustice; giving itself in service to those who suffer; and sharing with Christ in the establishing of his just, peaceable and loving rule in this world.”

Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the great preachers, said that we define ourselves as a church through our acts of hospitality.  He then reminds us, “The Hebrew people were commanded to be hospitable to the stranger and the outcast because they were once strangers and outcast in Egypt. We who are Christians celebrate the hospitality of the innkeeper, who placed Mary and Joseph in the stable when there was no room for them in the Inn.  Jesus did not come to a palace but a stable. And through the centuries Christ has never despised the common, the vulgar, the soiled and the humble dwelling places.  Such are his specialty. What hut has Jesus not entered? At what dilapidated hovel has not Christ knocked?  And what is his word of hope?  ‘I bring good tidings of great joy to all people’.”  

There is a classic picture depicting Jesus standing and knocking on the door of the Church.   Most of us have no problem opening the door to Christ.  But when the person at the door is an undocumented immigrant, an ex-convict, or a stranger, are we still as quick to offer hospitality? 

Perhaps our answer lies in the holiday we just celebrated. History tells us the Pilgrims were political refugees from England by way of the Netherlands.  With no documentation they landed as strangers, desperately in need of hospitality.  And that is what they received from the Wom-pa-no-ag tribe.  Thursday we celebrated that “the least of these”, the Pilgrims, were strangers, welcomed with an act of hospitality. 

I truly believe that Rockfish Presbyterian Church is one the shepherds of our community. I believe we are committed to bringing good tidings of joy and acts of hospitality to our entire community. I believe we understand we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper. But I also know it is hard to keep giving and giving and often feel like we never get back anything in return.

The Jewish scholar Martin Buber shares the story of a Rabbi who was imprisoned in Moscow during the 1950’s. The Rabbi’s jailer was determined to disprove the existence of God. He asked the Rabbi, “If God is all knowing why did God ask where Adam was after he ate from the forbidden fruit?”

The Rabbi responded, “It is a philosophical rather than a factual question.”

Then he asked his jailer, “Where are you?”

This is the question any shepherd must ask. Where are we when there is hunger? Where are we when children don’t have enough clothes? Where are we when folks are in prison? Where are we when folks are sick?

I hope we do our best to respond, “We are with Jesus.”

To God be the glory, Amen.



Sunday, November 19, 2017

The High Risk of Being a Disciple

Matthew 25:14-30


        This is Stewardship Sunday, a day when we celebrate our God given gifts and talents by making a financial commitment toward the ministry of this church and the church universal. So I know when the text was read this morning, the eyes of the Stewardship Ministry Team became as large as silver dollars and they slipped to the edge of their pews, silently screaming, “Preach, Louie, preach.”

And why shouldn’t they be excited? We’ve all experienced  a very literal reading of this text. The owner of a great farm, who we instantly identify as God, gave three slaves gifts of varying sizes. Each was encouraged to make the most of their financial windfall. The first two recipients researched the latest data in venture capitalism, took a giant leap, and their risk paid off. The third slave buried his money in the ground. Nothing ventured, nothing lost.

        The owner returns. He is delighted with the results of the first two recipients. But he is less than pleased with the choice made by the third. He calls the slave lazy and evil. Then the owner remarks, “For those who have much, more will be given. For those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” The preacher then ties up the parable with the promise that if you invest in the work of God, you will be rewarded for your efforts.

        I am certain you have heard that sermon. I am just as certain that I have preached it somewhere in my past. But along the way, I have developed a suspicion concerning texts that have always been taught and preached the same way. The more I read this text the more I have come to see that perhaps the parable we embrace might not have been the parable Jesus originally told. If we dig deeper, we might discover this is not only a great story concerning stewardship, it is an even greater story concerning faith.

        A few years ago I read a book by William Herzog, professor of New Testament Interpretation, at Colgate Divinity School which challenged me to look at parables in a completely different light. Herzog claims we analyze parables in so many different ways, we forget the reason Jesus originally told the story.   Herzog believes before parables became theologically sanitized, or as we like to say, earthly stories with a heavenly meaning, they were open-ended riddles aimed at starting a conversation. 2,000 years later we have made the parables definitive statements concerning God and heaven.  So let me begin with a question? Do you really believe that the land owner represents God? Do you place your faith in a God who instills fear or denounces those who don’t jump at his commands as evil?  I suspect most of us are put off by response of the land owner. I think Jesus told stories with heavy not heavily meanings which were meant to begin not end a conversation.

        What do we know about the audience hearing these stories? Most of the preaching done by Jesus was near the Sea of Galilee.   The people who came out to hear him were fisherman, farmers and shop keepers. They were regular folks interested in hearing from this new rabbi who had set up his tent just outside of their village. As he had done so often before Jesus began the conversation with a story. I’m not sure the listeners identified with the first two slaves entrusted with a large fortune. But then Jesus adds a third slave who is given one talent, or the equivalent of seven yeas wages. At this point Jesus may have asked, “What kind of risk would you take with the land owner’s money.”

        Some of the listeners were farmers. Every day was a risk for them. They never dreamed beyond putting enough food on the table. Each year they planted seeds and each day they fought heat, weeds, and insects. Every night they prayed for rain. Ironically, their neighbors the fisherman prayed no storm would sweep across the water. Each day they went out into the Sea of Galilee and hoped for clear weather. Deadly storms would come out of nowhere. Every fisherman knew a family that had lost a son or husband. These folks who worked the fields and fished the waters knew what it meant to take a risk. The livelihood of their families depended on the risk they were willing to take.  They heard Jesus’ story and might have concluded the slave acted wisely. If the man lost the money of the landowner, he would be indebted for life. So why not protect the money and make it through another year?

        Now the conversation begins. Imagine Jesus asking why the man hid the money. If he did, I promise you someone replied, “Because he was afraid of the boss.”

These were folks who fought the elements every day.  These were folks who superstitiously believed the winds and rains fell at the whims of the gods. They carefully protected every investment they made because they knew if they had one bad season they were ruined. 

So, in our imaginary conversation Jesus begins to preach. “Who said God was the landowner. God is not to be feared. God does not see you as a slave. God is the one who sustains you. God is the one who brings the gentle rain upon the land. God is the one who promises, “Fear not!  I am with you, ALWAYS.”

The consistent message of Jesus has always been, “My Father is gracious. My Father gives you the land to be harvested and the fish to be gathered. My Father expects you to share in your bounty but my Father will not condemn you if you lose faith or courage. My Father knows you and loves you and lifts you up even when you have lost hope.”

My friends, this is the good news of the gospel. The third slave was not a bad man, and neither are we. The third slave was a prudent, careful investor, and so are we. He was not about to take a chance with the owners money because as a slave he knew what the consequences could be. But we are not slaves in the eyes of God.

God loves us and wants us to love each other. God trust us and wants us to trust each other. God has invested in us and wants us to invest in each others. Then God wants to us to extend that love and trust to folks we don’t even know.

I am not telling you something you don’t already know.  Long before I was given the honor of serving this congregation you already believed we don’t work as slaves for the master.  We work for a God who empowers us.  We labor willingly for a God who calls us to look beyond ourselves. We toil effortlessly for a God who embraces acts of justice and peace.   We celebrate daily a God who gives us the opportunity to invest back into this community. Why do you do this with such joy and fervor? Because you worship a God who dispels hate and division with a single phrase, “Fear not! I am with you always.”

Thursday is Thanksgiving. Here at Rockfish, because we are not afraid, we not only give thanks every day, we celebrate our faith by generously and joyfully investing in God’s amazing vision of grace, mercy, and steadfast love.

Today is Stewardship Sunday. You just keep doing what you have always done and God will be delighted.  

To God be the glory.      Amen.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

I Don't Really Know, But I do Believe

I Thessalonians 4:13-18


        This would be a great time to be an evangelical preacher. We’ve had hurricanes, earthquakes, and raging fires.  I could bend your ear and perhaps your patience delivering a sermon   predicting that the end is near. I could even put a bumper sticker on my car that reads, In case of the Rapture, this car will be unmanned. I normally don’t take any of this stuff too seriously but this morning both texts are about the rapture. 

My evangelical friends can quote every scripture about the Second Coming.  They seem obsessed about when, how, and under what conditions Christ will arrive. To further complicate matters they always promise it will happen soon. I’ve got to confess I don’t wake up every morning wondering if this will be The Day of the Lord. Of course my views are based on a different reading of their favorite scriptures.

        Take the text in Matthew 25. Jesus tells a story about the wise and foolish bridesmaids. I can relate to this.  More than once I have waited patiently for the bride to make her way down the aisle. I remember a wedding in Texas where we all waited an hour for the mother of the bride to show up. I later learned she was showing her displeasure for the young man her daughter had picked.

In the culture in which Jesus lived, it was a great honor to be chosen as a bridesmaid. Their job was to light the way for the guest and honored couple.  At this particular wedding the groom arrived late. Some of the bridegrooms anticipated this and brought extra oil. The others brought only what the lamp would hold. When their oil ran out they went into town to get more. While they were gone, the groom showed up. The wedding party entered and the doors were locked.

The moral of the story is, Keep awake because no one knows when the Son of God will arrive. The problem is we have been waiting 2,000 years and this has caused some folks to get a little anxious.  It seems like every few years some fool who can’t wait for God tries to convince the rest of us that the end is near. Remember the 1980’s? Some evangelicals swore the Russians were going to blow up the world. Then to comfort us they promised God would arrive once the world was toast. Remember December of 1999? Some folks knew we would never see January 1, 2000. Then we entered the 21st century. As you might imagine Pat Roberts and Jerry Falwell had a field day after 9/11. And yet somehow, sixteen years later, we are still here. Personally I thought the end was near two years ago when a professional sports team from Cleveland won a championship. Truth is, there will always be people who will predict the end of the world. Many use the book of I Thessalonians as their proof.

I Thessalonians is the earliest letter of Paul. This makes it the oldest book in the New Testament. It was written a generation before any of the Gospels and gives an accurate depiction of one of the critical concerns of the early church. After the ascension, folks were told that Jesus would be back soon. A mantra of the early Church was, Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. We still chant this today but few of us utter those words and then pack our bags.

        Imagine living in the years just after the ascension of Jesus. Your belief in Jesus is based primarily on the resurrection. If Jesus could rise from the dead and ascend to heaven, anything was possible. Life was seen through a whole new lens. It was believed any day Jesus would return and the world would radically change. Why worry about tomorrow when today might usher in a whole new heaven and earth? So the people waited, and waited, and waited, and then they began to die.

        Huge questions emerged. Will the people who die before Jesus returns be included in this new heaven? What is taking Jesus so long? Do we all have to die before Jesus will return? Paul tried to deal with those questions. Ironically Paul later wrote II Thessalonians to correct what he had suggested in the first letter. 30 years later, responding to the same unanswered questions the writer of Matthew offered only one answer. Wait but be ready.

Today the end time presents a whole different set of questions. Today, we just want to know what heaven might be like. Note the difference, the early church was focused on a new beginning. We are more interested in a continuation of what we already know.

        These days I suspect many folks get their afterlife fix from reading material like the Left Behind   series. If you are not familiar with the books they tell the story of the world in crisis.  An obscure political figure rises to save the planet. This supposed hero is actual the anti-Christ setting in motion the destruction of the world. The real heroes of the story are those who work to bring people to Jesus before God reigns destruction down on the world. Nothing can be done to stop this destruction and only those who have been saved will escape the judgment of God.   

        The series came from the imagination of Time LaHaye, an evangelical minister who cherry picked scriptures from Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation.  He also relied heavily on the writings of John Nelson Darby, the father of Dispensationalism.  Amazingly none of the New Testament writers could figure God’s plans concerning the Second Coming, yet LaHaye and Darby claim to have all the answers. Perhaps that is why we are drawn to them. My problem is a careful reading of the New Testament convinces me the second coming is not so much about us as it is about God. Whatever happens, it will be a new experience because God is doing what God has always been doing. Jurgen Moltmann writes, “History cannot produce anything astonishingly new, it can only proceed and imagine from the past. In contrast the coming of Christ will not be based on what we know but what we never imagined possible.”  Moltmann is explicit in reminding us  we don’t know the time or the hour. We don’t even know what might happen. We are simply called to wait, and believe in the imagination of God.

        That can be difficult. Like the Thessalonians, we want to know and we want to know now. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately there are a lot of folks ready with answers. These days a quick way to sell a book is to write about an afterlife experience. It will instantly become a best seller if the first sentences are, “I did not believe in God before I went to the hospital. I was supposed to have a routine operation. But things went bad. For a moment the doctors thought they had lost me. When I woke up in recovery, what a story I had to tell.”

        So many people want to be assured  when we die everything is going to be all right. They want to spend eternity with their spouse and family. They want everything to be exactly as it is right now without the inclusion of global warming, rising interest rates and a not so affordable health care program. But the Paul only promises one thing, “We will be with the Lord forever.” What does that mean? I have no idea, yet I boldly ask you to believe in something we can’t comprehend yet somehow understand completely.

         Let me explain through a very personal story. As many of you know my father has decided to die. Don’t weep, he is 92 and been a diabetic for 50 years.  The next step in his treatment would have been dialysis but he has chosen not to participate. I spoke with my father a couple of weeks ago and he shared his view on death. “I have six months to a year. I believe one moment I will be here and the next I will be in heaven. I won’t even realize it happened. And if I am wrong and I just die, I guess I won’t know it.” Those are words coming from a man both inspired and obsessive about his faith. For him, the Second Coming of Christ, the Rapture, or whatever you want to call it has everything to do with the glory of God and very little to do with how it will affect him. If there is a heaven he is certain it will be great. If not, he won’t know what he missed. What matters is that he believes in God, regardless.

        This is the man taught me that Jesus comes when people have hope and never give up.

This is the man who preached to me that Jesus comes when faithful disciples work compassionately for justice.

Now we shares with me Jesus comes to people who are dying and tells them God never leaves anyone behind.

        Can I prove this? I hardly think so and honestly I don’t even care to try.

Do I believe it? Yes, and for me, that is all that matters.

To God be the glory.   Amen.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Antidote for Hypocrisy is Grace

Matthew 23:1-12


        Sometimes I wish there was only one gospel. Then there would only be a definitive answer to the question, “Who was Jesus?” When you have four gospels, that question becomes complicated. Most folks prefer the Jesus found in the John’s Gospel. John portrays Jesus as very mystical, always sitting on the edge of culture but never in danger of being contaminated by it. This Jesus rambles on about the theological significance of light and darkness. He doesn’t mingle with the crowds but prefers one on one conversations with folks like Nicodemus, the woman at the well, or Pilate. In the Gospel of John, Jesus calmly controls the conversation and the situation.

        This is not the Jesus we find in the Book of Matthew. Matthew’s Jesus is born into a political drama where Herod kills a thousand infants because of rumors that one child might be the successor to his throne. Matthew’s Jesus begins his ministry by hanging out with John the Baptist, a radical prophet who is eventually beheaded for his politically charged accusations. This Jesus constantly challenged the authority of the religious and political leaders by saying stuff that still makes us uncomfortable. Most folks prefer John’s calm and collective Jesus. But this morning, like it or not, we get a full dose of the feisty Son of Man.

        After repeated quarrels with the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus finally had enough. Our reading this morning is only a taste of what was to come. If you continue into the rest of chapter 23, Matthew records a barrage of denunciations as Jesus labels the leading religious folks as hypocrites, blind guides and killers of the true prophets. By the end of chapter 23 the leaders of Jerusalem want Jesus dead. 

Isn’t there a part of us that loves Jesus taking on the elite? This is the underdog standing up for justice, liberty, motherhood, and apple pie.   The problem is we forget vanity, hypocrisy, and arrogance are universal human characteristics. If you don’t believe this just listen to all the political ads. Everyone is spending a whole lot of money trying to convince us how corrupt their opponent is. Why have they adopted this strategy? Haven’t we always gossiped about and badmouthed folks we didn’t much care for?  Growing up in the south the mantra was, “Well we might be poor but at least we are not black.” Today, we wrap ourselves in the flag and brag, “Well things might be bad but at least we aren’t Mexican, or Korean or Muslim or worst of all, an Islamic Mexican who lives in Pyongyang.”  

Jesus ranted against the Pharisees because they were always putting everyone else down. They questioned the authority of Jesus because he had not gone to the right schools. They condemned the morals of Jesus because he hung out with the wrong people. They loved to brag, “Look at us. We faithfully go to the Synagogue every Sabbath and give thanks that, unlike you, we were created in the spitting image of God.”   How ironic that they would say this to Jesus. But then how often we do we make disparaging remarks against our enemies, forgetting he or she is also a child of God?

The Pharisees suffered from two common ailments. They confused their interest with God’s purpose. Second, they suffered from a universal human trait; their talk was a whole lot more impressive than their walk. Aren’t most of us just a little more pharisaic than we would like to admit? The hard truth is, Jesus didn’t have a problem with the Pharisees because they were religious. Jesus railed against the Pharisees because they didn’t practice what they preached.

Jesus told the Pharisees, “You place a heavy burden on the shoulders of everyone you meet but never lift a finger to remove that burden. You pray long lengthy prayers in public but never have a word for those who are wounded. You find it so easy to condemn and so difficult to become a servant.”

I suspect the hardest words Jesus ever spoke were, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” How fair is that? We worked hard to get where we are. You would think God would appreciate our efforts.

I am ashamed to admit no one is guiltier of that thought than preachers. I grew up with a young man who loved the spotlight and always wanted to be figure of authority. He started out as a teacher and then decided to enter seminary. At the end of his first year he started wearing a religious collar. I think it made him feel more powerful. When he became ordained he traveled from church to church, ruining each congregation he encountered. He once told me his congregations could not see the truth he was bringing to them. I suspect the only truth those churches witnessed was his immense ego.  Isn’t it a shame when a preacher or anyone else allows a thirst for recognition and power to separate them from the folks they came to serve?

Of course this text did not make it to Matthew’s gospel just so I could point my finger at a member of my peer group. It was written to make us all take a good long look in a mirror. What marks us as a citizen of God’s kingdom? How do we bring about unity in God’s kingdom? What kind of personal integrity does God demand? How will others identify us as a Child of God?

The Pharisees bragged about their knowledge of the Torah. I would be the last person to suggest studying the Bible is a bad thing. The Pharisees prayed until they were blue in the face. I wish we would all pray a little bit more. The problem was the Pharisees never seemed to understand what the Bible was saying and they prayed all the time but never listened for God’s answer. They were so religious yet failed to understand those who follow God strive to love their enemies, be merciful, practice forgiveness, and engage in mutual service for the good of all humanity.

Of course in today’s world the stuff Jesus holds up to be important not only receives ridicule, but is even considered to be dangerous. Who in their right mind tries to love someone you were taught to hate? Who shows mercy toward someone society has marked as unredeemable? Who wants to work beside someone with lesser skills and forgive them when they make a mistake? If we dare to do that then we might as well admit that we are all equal. We know how hard that can be.

So Jesus tries to makes it easy for us. He said to his disciples, “Just remember two things. First, there is only one God and it is not you. Second, there is only one body, and we are all part of it.” You might remember how Paul expanded on that thought. “We are no longer American or Korean, straight or gay, owner or factory worker, but one in Christ.”  No wonder the Pharisees wanted to kill Jesus.              

It is so hard to forsake our narrow-mindedness and live up to the demands of Jesus.  Perhaps a starting point is remembering that grace is the antidote for hypocrisy.  Grace gives us the courage to honestly stare at ourselves in a mirror.   Then grace welcomes us to the table of our Lord.                          

                      To God be the glory.     Amen.