Sunday, August 27, 2017

Matthew 16:13-20


        The center piece of the gospel of Matthew is when Jesus turned to Peter and asked, “Who do you think I am?” Pete responded, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” How did Peter know this? Jesus did not have the credentials. He was born in a back water town on the edge of the universe. There were rumors that his mother was pregnant before marriage. Who knew who the father might have been? Jesus did not go to seminary and was not even ordained to be a preacher. According to the IRS his income for the past year was zero. Yet Peter looked at Jesus and knew Jesus was unique.

        Who are Jerry Wrenn, Mary Gurr, and Mike Fisher? Other than being members of Rockfish Presbyterian, what do they have in common? What qualifies them to be ordained as elders?      While having a conversation with Jerry about becoming an elder he asked, “Do I have to be an elder to become a member of the session?” The question caught me off guard. He continued. “Elders are highly respected, highly learned, and highly religious folks. I am not sure I qualify.”

        Jerry’s question has caused me to reminisce about some of my favorite elders of the past. None had much in common. Their biblical knowledge varied. Their station in life and occupations were dissimilar.  Perhaps the only thing they had in common was the each believed Jesus to be the son of the living God.       So for the sake of Jerry, Mary, and Mike, allow me a moment to tell you about them.   

Perhaps my favorite was Grady. She proudly stood 4 foot ten and barely weighed 90 pounds and had the strongest heart of any one I have ever known. I dare not guess her age. I served communion to shut-ins with Grady for five years. Half the folks on our list were not church members. They were just folks Grady looked in on every week. Few of them had a friend in the world except Grady. But she was always there. In her first term as elder I can hardly remember Grady speaking a word yet when our Clerk retired Grady was unanimously chosen to replace him.

        George was born into money. His mother owned and then sold the Coca-Cola plants that served all of Eastern North Carolina. George worked but he really didn’t need to. Because of this many folks suspected George incapable of making any important decisions. His words were usually overlooked at session meetings. In 1985 I decided to take an extended leave to volunteer for Witness for Peace in Nicaragua. This caused great concern among session members. After a lengthy discussion George stood up in the middle of the meeting and said, “I have no idea why Louie wants to do this but when he speaks I hear the words of Jesus. We need to support him.”   End of discussion.

        Doug was a mess. When his grandmother brought him to church and we cringed. Doug was a bull in a china closet. And then he started to grow. When he reached the age of 16 he was the starting guard on the varsity football team and chief disrupter in our youth group. He stumbled and bumbled through everything and everyone. But Doug loved his church. If the doors were open Doug was there. His senior year in high school he was nominated to be a session member. He told me one of the reasons he went to the local college was so he could complete his term as a session member. Today Doug is a principal at a high school in Dallas, Texas. He is both an elder and leader of the youth program in his church.

        Rebekah was born into the church. Her father was a minister. She was persuaded to attend a Presbyterian College. She earned her Master’s in Christian Education and worked in churches as a Christian Educator and specialized in working with Children and youth. She was great at what she did. She loved the church, she loved worship, but it was not until late in her career that she was even considered for the position of elder. Sometimes our blindness keeps us from nominating the most obvious choices.

We too often assume there is a cookie cutter approach to picking elders. It used to be assumed you had to be a male and at least 50 years of age. A person’s occupation often determined who was selected. Sometimes we make the mistake of picking folks because of their status in the community or a unique skill set they possess that might have nothing to do with being an elder. I have always found the best elders are those who see beyond themselves. The best elders are the ones who claim Jesus as Son of God and might not fully understand what that means. The best elders are often the folks we overlook. But when put in the position to serve Christ, they shine.

I am not sure what kind of elder Mary, or Jerry, or Mike will became. But someone in this congregation saw something and nominated them. In private conversations and prayer, they decided to serve. Then you as a congregation showed your confidence by voting for them. Who do we think Mary and Mike and Jerry are? They are elders, children of the living God.

Let’s pray for them, let’s listen to them, and let’s be patient with them as they work toward being as worthy as Grady, Doug, George, and Rebekah.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

I Can't Believe What Jesus Said!

Matthew 15:10-28


        What do we do with Matthew chapter 15, verses 24 and 25? Jesus responds to the desires of a Canaanite woman by saying, “I did not come for your sake. It is not fair to take children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

I have been preaching from the lectionary for a long time. This is the twelfth time I have been challenged with the opportunity to find the good news of the gospel in these words. Early in my ministry I avoided this text. It was easier to preach on the suggested Old Testament scripture. With the exception of Christmas, I have more sermons on Joseph and the reconciliation with his brothers than any other passage in the Bible. Eventually I decided to try come to terms with this difficult, perhaps inflammatory statement from the lips of Jesus.  It has not been an easy journey. I glanced back at some of my earlier attempts and they were not pretty. No matter how I approached the text, Jesus called a woman a dog. That sounds hateful because it is hateful. I realize the words fell from the lips of one raised in a society that treated Canaanites, particularly Canaanite women, as less than human.   But that does not make it right. Furthermore, it was Jesus who spoke those words. So what do we do with this passage?

Maybe it helps if we back up to the beginning of the story. Jesus once again was in hot water. The disciples were concerned that the Pharisees had taken offense at something Jesus had said. Imagine that. A sermon was preached and not everyone agreed with the preacher. I used to live under the illusion that every word I spoke was embraced by folks as a pearl from heaven. How devastating to discover this might not always be the case. Imagine how hard this reality must be if you are Jesus?

From the beginning Jesus was proclaimed to be the savior of the world. Yet from the beginning there were those who questioned every word Jesus spoke. This weighed on the disciples. They did more than follow Jesus. They loved him. But they respected the Pharisees. They were the teachers of the Torah. They were the moral leaders of the community. Their endorsement would go a long way making Jesus’ ministry legitimate.  Yet at every turn in the road, the Pharisees and Jesus seemed to be in conflict.

Our text begins with Jesus declaring the Pharisees to be like blind guides who were leading the blind into a pit.  Peter, not believing what he had heard responded, “That sounds like a parable. Could you explain it?”

Our English translations have cleaned up the response but in the original Greek Jesus asked Peter if he was too stupid to understand the obvious.

Jesus then explained his statement in a way I think all of us can understand. “When you eat garbage, it goes to the stomach and eventually out into the sewer.  But when garbage is in your heart, it leaves the body by way of the mouth.  The heart is the origin of murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and slander. What the Pharisees proclaim comes from the evil in their heart.”

In case you are wondering, the list Jesus referred to are the last six commandments. Jesus refused to be held accountable by those who claimed to be teachers of the Law while their slanderous and hateful words constantly broke the Law they pretended to uphold.  

We can see that Jesus was furious. And who can blame him? He was being attacked from all sides. Even the disciples wanted Jesus to see the problem from the Pharisees point of view. Finally Jesus made the decision to leave town until everyone, including himself had cooled down. They went to Tyre, a village in the land of Canaan. All Jesus wanted to do was rest and figure out how to deal with all the anger that gravitated his way.

But peace and quiet were not to be found. A woman recognized Jesus and starting shouting, “Son of David, have mercy on me. My daughter is possessed. Please heal her.”

Jesus did not respond. He acted as if she was not there. So she cried out a second and third time. She hollered so loud it annoyed the disciples. One of them shouted at Jesus, “This is supposed to be vacation. Please tell that woman to shut-up.”  And that is exactly what Jesus did. He looked at the woman and replied, “I was sent to bring good news to the children of Israel. So please leave us alone. ”

But she was persistent. “Lord, my daughter is sick. I know you can heal her.”

Imagine being Jesus. First the Pharisees are screaming at him. Then the disciples won’t give him a moment to breathe. And finally this foreign woman demands his attention. He finally had enough. He looked right through the woman and screamed, “Why should I take food from children and give it to a dog?” 

As Jesus turned to walk away and she replied, “Even the dogs get to eat the crumbs from the master’s table.”

No one talked like that to Jesus. Yet this woman refused to be stopped by boundaries of ethnicity, heritage, religion, or gender.  And the one who was tired, the one who was dismissive, the one who probably bristled at her antagonistic tone, recognized her voice as coming from the heart of God. Jesus turned and said, “Your faith has saved your daughter.” Then Jesus returned to Galilee and preached the gospel to everyone he encountered.

I could make some grand theological statement about this being a turning point in the ministry of Jesus. The one who spoke with the heart of the Son of David began to see with the eyes of God.

I could approach this text from the standpoint of the writer of the gospel of Matthew. He was writing to converted Jews building a church in Greece. This story reminds them that the law and compassion of God reaches across every conventional boundary.

But we know the Bible is a living document that continues to transform us. In this story, we are Jesus. We have experienced the righteousness of God. We can clearly identify what is good and evil. But sometimes we get weary when folks challenge what we know is right and pure and descent. Sometimes we want to turn from the chaos and run away to find peace and tranquility. And sometimes we do, only to encounter an insignificant person in the eyes of most folks who believes in us, who trust in us, who finds their courage in us, and wants us to stand up on their behalf. But we are tired and we are wounded and we just don’t have the energy to succumb to another’s agenda. And so we scream out at them hoping they will just leave us alone.     (stop)


That is when our vision clears. That is when our hearts are lifted. That is when we realize we must reenter our broken world because God put us here for a holy reason. Jesus said, “Let not your hearts be troubled”. And then he added, “Neither let your heart be afraid.”

These are troubling times. We can’t afford to be caught on the sidelines. We need to return to the storm. That’s where we find the Canaanite woman. That’s where we find Jesus. And that’s where we will find our souls.       Amen.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Half an inch of Water and I Think I'm Gonna Drown

Matthew 14:22-33

        Like many of you, I first encountered the Bible as a child. My superheroes were Moses, David, Sampson, and Paul. I took the stories literally because the folks that taught them to me took them literally. Through the years I believe I have come to love the Bible even more by daring to wrestle with the symbolism that is to be gained from stories about arks, ladders, big fish and folks walking on water.

        What a marvelous story we read this morning in the Book of Matthew. You remember Matthew. He is the gospel writer that begins each parable with the words, “The kingdom of heaven is like a lost coin, or a mustard seed, or any number of ordinary things.”  Actually what he was saying was the church of Jesus Christ can be best seen in the ordinary.  Matthew’s entire gospel is about the church and how we are to represent the mindset of God. But sometimes the church can become a place which responds to dark moments by either disappearing or walking around on eggshells hoping the crisis of the day will disappear.

        Matthew the storyteller records an incredible moment in the life of Peter. But Matthew the church builder dares us to look beyond Peter and think of the church as a boat. Think of the water as the chaos in which the boat attempts to float. Think of church members trying to navigate this complicated thing called life when evil winds begin to blow.

        Jesus had a long day of preaching and teaching and wanted to get away from the crowds. It was his habit to go up into the mountains and spend time in prayer. But the disciples were fishermen. Often they would hop in a boat, cast off, in order to be isolated from the disturbances of the day. I imagine that is why most of us come to church. We want to get away from all the noise and bedlam that seems to emerge with each step we take. When we come to church we don’t have to listen to the talking heads that seem to be everywhere. When we come to church we get to listen to music that promises God will take care of us. For one hour a week we are isolated from the world. And even if we don’t like the sermon, we can shut our eyes and everyone will assume we are just praying. What could be more peaceful than Church? It’s like a boat, rocking in perfect harmony to the rhythm of gentle waves.

        The disciples found a cove on the edge of the lake. They believed it to be a safe place. Once the anchor was secure, the disciples laid down in the bottom of the boat. Ever spent a relaxing night on the water? The lapping of the waves against hull becomes melodious.  One by one the disciples fell asleep. But after midnight the wind began to freshen. Peter was the first to take notice of the sudden change in the weather.

        Have you ever had the misfortune of being out on the water when a storm unexpectedly arrives? I grew up in Hampton, Virginia. Deb’s dad had a boat and often went fishing in the Chesapeake Bay. I had no interest in the water but I was madly in love with Deb so I often accompanied them on their quest to catch Moby Flounder. More than once we were chased back to shore when the sky turned deadly.   

        Peter had no gas powered engine. It was too dark to hoist the sails and head home. The waves and rocks left the disciples with little options but to ride out the storm.

        Sometimes that is the way it is in the church. While we desire the church to be a safe place, sometimes the waves of life make our journey difficult. Last year Sarah, Ann, Ralph, Frankie and others died. Each played a pivotal role in our church. Their deaths placed us in a storm not of our own making. Sarah’s death was particularly hard on our music program. We are still trying to figure out what we must do to replace her gifts.

        This fall the Nevill’s, Turnbull’s, Beddow’s and Jefferson’s will be moving to new pastures. They have each given us such great joy and while we understand their reasons for moving to flatter ground, they will be sorely missed. Think of all the years Nancy ministered to the sick. She will be hard to replace. Our boat will certainly rock a little precariously when these good folks depart.

        And let’s be honest. Sometimes folks in church just get those noses a little out of joint. Paul did not write First Corinthians 13 as a meditation for a wedding.  The church in Corinth was one rocky ship. No sooner had Paul dealt with one problem than another appeared. Paul preferred to write about faith and hope but when it came to the squabbles in Corinth he begged them to remember, “Faith and hope are important, but if you don’t have love, nothing else matters.”

        I suspect there were moments in Matthew’s church when everything wasn’t perfect. I have spent my whole life in churches and just the fact that churches are filled with people usually guarantees not everyone is going to be on the same page. Boats get rocked by our everyday storms.

        I think the greatest difficulties in a church stem from our persistent worrying about tomorrow. Sometimes the journey just seems too much and we just aren’t sure if we are up to the task. We get so worried about our future we fail to see the hand of God at work. This week Sam Alexander alerted the wood ministry team that there were a couple trees at Doug Wood’s house that were ready to be hauled away.  Doug lives above the intersection of Black Walnut and Stoney Creek West. I rode my bike to Doug’s house once and thought I was going to die. There is not an inch of flat ground on Doug’s property. Wednesday I got there early to survey the land. The first tree was stacked up just off the driveway. This was easy pickings. But the rest of the wood was in the back yard. Our wood ministry team has big hearts and a lot of determination but we are best known for our age and bad backs.  As I climbed the hill back to Doug’s house I knew we could not possibly harvest this generous gift. Then Dane and Scott arrived. Their combined ages are less than 55. Chaos turned to triumph as within two hours six loads of wood found a new home on our church wood pile.  Sometimes we fail to see beyond the obvious.       

But sometimes the crisis is bigger than us. Peter knew he was going to die. It was only a matter of minutes before the storm would capsize the boat and leave the disciples helpless victims in the water. Just as they were about to give up all hope the disciples saw a figure approaching the boat. They thought it was a ghost, a certain sign they were about to die. But Jesus spoke, “It is I. Do not be afraid.”

        It is easy to believe in the love of God when you are sitting in a pew with your family singing, “Amazing Grace.”

        It is easy to believe that God is good when you are eating chocolate chips cookies with your grandchildren.

        When no one is rocking to boat, where else would we want to be but in the arms of Jesus? But when the storms of life arise and it seems our ship might capsize, what is the first thing we do? We panic. We forget faith demands more than just sitting on our backsides. We become like eleven of the twelve disciples who took out pen and paper and wrote their last will and testament. But Peter hoped over the side and started walking toward Jesus.

This was Peter’s finest hour. When everyone else hid Peter called out, “Lord if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus replied, “Come.”

        We usually only remember the part where Peter started to sink and Jesus rescued him. We forget Peter stepped out of the boat and took a few steps. Sure he became overwhelmed by the winds. Sure he sank into the waves like a rock. But before he sank, he walked.

 Remember when you took the training wheels off the bike of your son or daughter. Remember running behind them with your hand steadying the bike. Remember letting the bike go and your child precariously wobbled down the road. Remember when they looked around, lost their nerve, and fell. How did you respond? Did you scream at them for messing up? No! You celebrated the moment. You helped them back on the bike.  And the rest is history.

        Jesus didn’t say to Peter, “O you of little faith, why did you think you could walk on water?”  What Jesus said was, “Peter, why did you ever doubt that you couldn’t walk on water.” Yes, Peter sank, but he was the only one brave enough to get out of the boat. Yes, Peter sank, but not while his eyes were on Jesus. Are we looking to Jesus or will we cling to bottom of our boat petrified by fear?

        Chaos descended on Charlottesville yesterday. Three people died because of this chaos. One died because she made the choice to stand against an ideology she believed to be evil. Two Virginia State Troopers died on a day they certainly would have preferred to have been home with their families. Chaos seldom cares who dies.

        I know many, maybe most of you would prefer I not speak about this. After all, the crisis is over. Most of our visitors have gotten back in their vehicles and headed home. But the stench of their presence lingers. In 1933 the German National Church recognized the Nazi party and Adolph Hitler as their new chancellor. I mention this because so many of the young men who visited our city wore swastikas.  But not all German Christians fell silent. Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Niemoller gathered Lutheran and Reform ministers together to declare that the church’s freedom is in Jesus Christ who is Lord of every area of life. Their statement was published as The Theological Declaration of Barmen. It begins with this premise:

        Jesus Christ is our righteousness, sanctification and redemption. Jesus Christ is the one we obey and trust in life and death. We reject false doctrines which suggest there are areas of life where we do not belong to Jesus.

        Barth was forced to flee Germany. Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and executed. But their eyes never left Jesus. May we courageously maintain a similar vision.      Amen. 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Midnight at the Oasis

Genesis 32:22-31

             We have all had one of those moments when a choice, or a decision, lay before us.  We lose sleep, we worry, we procrastinate, but the deadline, a deadline that could forever change our lives, gets closer.  As children we made decisions about picking friends. Later we picked colleges, occupations, spouses, not necessarily in that order.  I suspect all of us have looked back and explored how those choices shaped our lives.  As adults, we understand all too well the radical nature of life changing decisions. We weigh all the options, hopefully we pray, but most of all we wrestle with our soul in a never ending battle of trying to make the right choice.  And sometimes, at midnight, we go down to the river, wondering who or what might greet us. Such was the dilemma of Jacob.  Jacob was a scoundrel, liar, and cheat. And those were his best qualities.  He worked hard to manipulate life to suit his purposes, but this did not excuse him from his inevitable appointment with the river.  Jacob was no role model.  He is not the first person who comes to mind when we think of a biblical character we might emulate.  And yet, like it or not, I imagine there is a little of Jacob in each of us.   Unlike his grandfather Abraham, Jacob was no hero.  He lived life running away from his problems.  He fled Esau and Laban without even saying good-bye.  What was there to say?  He stole the birthright from Esau.  He stole two daughters and the family jewels from Laban.  If anything, Jacob was the anti-hero. 

Unlike his father Isaac, Jacob was no poet.  Isaac defined his life by that ghastly incident in the mountains with his father.  When Abraham lifted the knife to slay his son, Isaac saw his past, and his future written before his eyes.  Isaac won Rebekah with his words and blessed Jacob with his vision.  But Jacob, the man who saw a ladder descend from the heavens, never spoke of his dream in poetry or song.  Jacob saved his words to manipulate, to placate, to exaggerate, in order to control the moment regardless of the lasting consequences.  Jacob was no poet, for poets speak the truth.  Jacob was just a liar, molding his desires, his appetites, regardless of the damage done to the innocent.  Jacob could not see the future, therefore tomorrow became his greatest enemy.  His fear of the unknown drove Jacob to finally confront his destiny and his God.
Jacob had been away from home for nearly fifteen years.  His mother and father had died and Jacob had skipped both funerals.  His brother did not relinquish responsibility of the land.  Under Esau the herds had grown and the land had flourished.  But despite all Esau’s labor, Jacob still owned the birthright. Legally the land still belonged to the younger brother who had fled in the night.  But Esau could not turn his back on his father’s dream and  Jacob was aware this.  Jacob knew Esau had cultivated what was technically his.  What Jacob could not know was how Esau would react once the prodigal returned home.  In the light of day, Jacob figured there was no way he could manipulate his brother a second time.  In the light of day, Jacob anticipated that Esau would respond the selfishly and self-servingly. Jacob figured Esau had to be waiting on the other side of the river with nothing but revenge on his mind.   
But at night, another voice entered the consciousness of the manipulator.  At night, Jacob encountered the God of Beth-el.  At night, Jacob had seen a ladder descending from the clouds.  At night, Jacob was reminded that God would remain with him, regardless.  So at night, Jacob went down to the river.
The tough thing about making a decision is not the final decision.  We already know what we are supposed to do.  Choosing between right and wrong is not all that difficult. Acting on what is right is the problem. There are so many complicating factors which confuse our minds.  Doing the right thing is not always advantageous. Doing what is right often works against our best interest.  Living a life where our self interests are set aside for the sake of a loved one, or a beloved community, might require sacrifice on our part.  Jacob was no hero.  For an entire life, his needs, his desires, his wishes, always superseded the needs, the desires and the wishes of his community.  Jacob had learned to manipulate everyone, but God.  And now it was night.  He had no place to run, no place to hide.  Standing by the river, on the edge of his destiny, Jacob encountered a stranger. 
Was it an angel?  Was it God?  Perhaps it was the deepest side of his psyche harboring all his doubts.  Perhaps Jacob was attacked by an inner voice that said, “I am nothing, I am unworthy of my blessing, I am unworthy to continue the covenant established with my grandfather Abraham.”  Perhaps Jacob engaged in a battle between the one destined to be a dreamer and the manipulative fugitive who was always prone to run away.   After all it has often been said our truest victories are the ones we achieve over ourselves.  Perhaps Jacob was forced to confront himself and found there was no place left to run.
As tempting as it would be to draw these conclusions, the text suggests Jacob encountered more than just his own psyche.   We all know sometimes the choices between lawful or unlawful, or between right and wrong, can be manipulated to serve our own purposes.  So we ask the more difficult question, “What is Godly and what is ungodly?”  This conversation moves us beyond our conventional answers and challenges us to explore life as seen through the imagination of God.  No where in Jacob’s limited psyche did he imagine that Esau might be waiting across the river with forgiveness in his heart.  We constantly find ourselves captured by the limited choices WE believe to be possible.  Jacob had no idea what would happen when he encountered God.  Few of us do.  But for the first time in his life, Jacob did not run away.
Was he ready to repent?  Was he hoping God would bail him out?  Was he curious?   Maybe Jacob was all of the above.  Maybe he was just tired of running. When our last resort is to wrestle with God, are we any different than Jacob? Tormented and confused, hoping for a miracle, we stagger toward the river. Only the miracle we discover is seldom what we expected.
        What Jacob encountered was not a solution but a presence.  Jacob went to the river and discovered God was already there. 
He fought with God, for Jacob had fought God all his life.  But isn’t it better to fight God than to be without God. 
He struggled with God, for Jacob struggled with God from the beginning. But isn’t it better to struggle with God than be alone.
They fought all night until all Jacob could do was hold on to that which he could not even understand. This wretched man confronted holiness. This dishonest man found himself challenged by truth.   This frightened man discovered a Holy Refuge.  This barren man encountered an Unimaginable Love.  Inspired by everything he had never been, the next morning Jacob limped across the river.
(Have Kathleen sing)
Let’s go down to the river to pray,
Thinkin’ about that good old way,
And who can wear the starry crown,
Good Lord show us the way.
Oh sinner let’s go down,
Come on down, come on down,
Oh sinner let’s go down,
Down to the river to pray.