Sunday, October 28, 2018

Celebrating the Gifts of God

Mark 10:46-52


        Throughout the month we have heard a Minute for Stewardship from various Mission Teams.  Ann and Ken were great. I personally can’t wait for next week. Ron Culberson has agreed to speak and I know it will be the highlight of our stewardship campaign.  The Session always expects me to preach a Stewardship Sermon for reasons I can’t quite figure out. I tried to look back on some of my past efforts but fell asleep before reaching the fourth page.  My memories of efforts by other preachers are just as dreadful. Some tell pithy stories. Some use guilt. None are really all that impressive. Other than TV evangelist, ministers aren’t all that good at asking for money. So I was really excited this week when Presbytery sent out an e-mail suggesting every minister read a book titled, Not Your Parents Offering Plate, a New Vision for Financial Stewardship by J. Clif Christopher.  It had some interesting suggestions.  Did you know that in America today there are over 1.8 million nonprofit organizations, trying to solicit your dollars?  In 1985 religious groups received 55% of all charitable donations.  Last year that number was down to 28%.  Part of the reason is the number of nonprofits since 1985 has risen by 600,000.  There are a lot of folks out there doing some really good stuff asking for your money knowing people want to give to something that changes lives.  I could not agree more.

        Mr. Christopher gives three reasons why folks give.  Number one is folks have a belief in the mission of the organization. WHAT IS OUR MISSION AT ROCKFISH PRESBYTERIAN?  I believe it is to transform lives.  Let’s take a quick look at who we are and how we are known. Our motto declares that Rockfish is to be a Light in the Valley.  What perfect words for this congregation.  I don’t believe any other church does more for the folks of Nelson County than Rockfish.  No church has a more diverse congregation.  No church has a better music program.  Certainly we have room to improve but when Deb and I arrived eight years ago we were overwhelmed by the caring, nurturing, generosity that defines Rockfish as a church.  You are known throughout the Presbytery.   When I tell folks in Richmond I am the minister at Rockfish, the immediate response is always, “What a blessing it must be to be there. I hear nothing but good things about your congregation.” 

        Christopher says a second reason people give is because they have a high regard for the leadership.  I have been here eight years. You know my strengths and my weaknesses. But this church has never been defined by its minister. Preachers come and go. You are the backbone of this congregation. Let’s start with your session. What an honorable group of people.  Look at your bulletin and marvel at the folks you have chosen to lead this congregation.  But you are more than just 12 people. Consider the folks who lead our worship’s amazing music.   Go to Sunday School or small groups and encounter an hour of both intellectual and spiritual growth. Go to Senior Citizen lunches, Habitat, the Food Pantry, BRIM meetings, CASA meetings, Wood Ministry, or so many other activities serving the folks in Nelson County and you will see your fellow church members.  Who is the leadership of this county?  You are!  Who is the leadership of this church?  You are.  As one just riding on your coattails, let me say you are doing a mighty fine job.

        Finally Christopher says people don’t give to sinking ships.  For eight years I have watched how you care for each other. For eight years I have marveled at your ability to defuse difficult situations with laughter. You are Yankee and Southerner, Republican and Democrat, Straight and Gay, Old and Older and you love to be in the same room with each other. HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE? It is simple. You are a vibrant, faithful people, who serve God as a light to this valley.

        I appreciate these insights made by Christopher.  They are excellent points but I have to say Christopher is suggesting nothing new.  I have graduated from one college and three graduate schools.  This is the time of the year each of them solicit me for money. They begin by informing me of their mission, their leadership and their success.  I fully expect United Way, the Cancer Society, the Heart Fund and a slew of other organizations who send request for money.  They too will brag about their mission, their leadership and their success.  The formula suggested by Christopher has a good track record in the private sector.  It works for organizations because most folks want to place their money where they know it will be used well. I say AMEN to that.  But the church is and has always been more than an organization.  In fact I might be so bold to say when the church only views itself as an organization it takes a mighty big risk of losing its heart and soul.

        Please pay special attention to this week’s text from the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus and the disciples were walking up the road from Jericho.  They were surrounded by a large crowd of people, all trying to figure out who this Jesus of Nazareth might be.  On the side of the road was a beggar named Bartimaeus.  When he heard that Jesus was passing by he exclaimed, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”  Folks sternly ordered him to simmer down but he kept crying out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.”  Jesus stopped turned to the blind man and said, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Bartimaeus replied, “Teacher, let me see again.”  Jesus said to him, “Your faith has made you well.”  Immediately Bartimaeus regained his sight.

        There are plenty of miracle stories in the gospels but I think this is my favorite.  Thousands of folks with great eyesight flocked to Jesus every day.  Yet only this man, this blind man, recognized who Jesus was and what Jesus could do.  Too often the work of the church revolves around programs, monthly bills, and buildings to maintain.  Being an institution, those things are important.   But Blind Bartimaeus wasn’t interested in any of that stuff.  He believed in a power that transcended slogans, leadership, and good track records.  He wanted, he needed a miracle, and the only person capable of giving him sight was standing right in front of him.  Bartimaeus recognized God in Christ.  He knew, he believed, something was about to happen that was beyond the scope of his human imagination.

        What would happen during the stewardship season if we chose not to emphasize our dynamic preaching, or our wonderful music, or our love of the community, or even our spiritual piety, but rather exclaimed, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us”?   What would happen if we are primarily here to proclaim the mercy and grace God and then act accordingly?

        I believe that trust in God has made us who we are.  We believe God has plans for us because we know what God has done in our past.  You know our history; Ray Koon tells it every chance he gets. You’ve seen the garden, the wood pile, and the smiles of Head Start kids. You’ve witnessed the growth of our building, a gift not for us but to our community. You have experienced the joy of being here, not just on Sunday morning, but every day of the week. Our doors and our hearts, our hands, our imagination and our generosity never close. Jesus has showered mercy upon us. Let us respond with a grateful heart.

                                                        To God be the glory.  Amen.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

God is Great! So Why Aren't We?

Psalm 104; Mark 10:35-45


“Bless the Lord, O my soul. You are great.”

Psalm 104 is an ancient adaptation of a poem that has its origins in the Egyptian Tradition. Some scholars suggest the Psalm might be a treasure that the Hebrew people brought with them when they escaped the tyranny of Pharaoh. It is the oldest creation story in the Bible, outdating the Genesis stories by more than 500 years. Yet when we read the Psalm, its poetry shows no age.

You stretch out the heavens.

You ride on the wings of the wind.

You set the earth on its foundation.

You cover the deep with a garment.

You make the springs to gush forth.

You water the mountains and the earth is satisfied.

O Lord, our God, how magnificent is Your work.

The poet managed this imagery in a land known for its barrenness. Can you imagine her words if she had lived in Rockfish Valley? Every morning I awake to a landscape that puts Monet to shame. Each evening I witness subtle shadows that can never be duplicated. Words are not adequate to describe what we see from below. Yet seeking more, we ascend to the hills where no artificial lens can capture what we experience.

I hope all of you have driven the Parkway or the Skyline Drive. While it is a joyful experience my preferred mode of transportation is a bicycle. At my age, going fast is hardly an option.  Every flower stands ready to be examined.   Every sound is amplified through the woods. There is nothing quite as exciting as hearing a bear crash through the brush as he flees from a two wheeled monster on the road above.  Such is the mystery and grace of God’s creation.

May the glory of Your creation endure forever.

May we rejoice in all You have created.

You open Your hand and the earth filled with goodness. May I rejoice in the Lord for as long as I live.

May I sing God’s praise as long as I have being.

For three thousand years God’s people have been singing this song. We are born and we die yet the mountains remain. Wars come and go yet the streams continue to flow. From the advent of humankind we have worked to the point of exhaustion and then retreated into God’s creation to be restored. Our songs of praise find their rhythm within God’s gift of gentle breezes and calm waters. It is the way it has always been. It is the way we assumed it would always be. God is great! So why aren’t we?

Last month Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations declared that climate change has become an existential threat to the planet earth. He said, “Climate change is moving faster than us.” He noted record breaking temperatures, wildfires, storms, and floods leaving a trail of death and devastation. He pointed to the recent monster hurricanes in both the Atlantic and Pacific, disappearing Arctic Sea ice, the threat to food chains from oceans becoming more acidic and the rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. He called on the world to shift from fossil fuels to clean energy produced from water, wind, and the sun by no later than the year 2020. His final words were sobering. “We have reached a point of no return. If we fail to act by the year 2040, we are assured a dark and dangerous future.”

As a rule I tend not to be impressed by hyperbole. At any given time we can find someone holding up a sign claiming the world is going to end. And anyway, how many of us plan on living until the year 2040? Isn’t this just another cycle of nature? Won’t Mother Earth figure it out and make the necessary adjustments. Psalm 104 has been celebrated for 3,000 years. Give me one good reason it won’t be celebrated for another 3,000? Maybe the answer to that question is in the last verse of the Psalm. “Let sinners be consumed from the earth. Let the wicked be no more!”

The Psalmist believes there is an intended harmony to creation. The existence of the world is based on a critical balance between what God created and how humanity responds to this gift.  Look at the story of Noah. Creation is threatened by the wickedness of humanity.  The story ends by God telling Noah the generations to follow are responsible for the livelihood of the birds of the air, the fish in the sea, and the streams that run down from the mountains. The writer of the Noah story knew nothing about climate change or fossil fuels. But even 3,000 years ago the poets knew that human greed can easily mess up a good thing. Psalm 104 warns the earth will remain healthy only if we are obedient to our planet's needs. But if we put ourselves above what nature requires, a crisis will arise.

I am reminded of the conversation Jesus had with James and John when they asked to be given the place of honor. Jesus’ answer was quite simple. If you want to be great, you must be a servant to all. To put that in ecological terms, if we want the earth to survive, then we must become its partner rather than its master. The year 2040 seems so far away. Many of us cannot imagine living that long. But think of it this way. In 22 years my grandchildren will be 32, 28, 26 and 23. How old will your grandchildren be? What kind of world are they about to inherit? Are we willing to change our habits as a ransom for them? I sure hope so.       Amen.                          

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Yet You Are Holy!

Psalm 22; Job 38


        What do we do when our theological beliefs are at odds with our experience? We understand rain falls on the just and the unjust…… until it rains, and then we question why we’re getting wet. We turn to the Bible, only to discover that not every scripture is helpful. Often our inquiry and the darkness can merge into chaos. We desperately cry out and often receive no answer. We question the suffering of the innocent. Sometimes this journey leads us to the book of Job, a story everyone seems to know but few have actually read. It depicts a man with little patience who is mistaken as the most patient man of all time. It depicts a God rarely experienced throughout the Hebrew tradition.  It offers a question which is never resolved and a solution which is hardly acceptable. Yet we love the story.   WHY?

        Let’s start from the beginning. Job 1:1, “There once was a man named Job. He was blameless and upright, always turning from evil.” Job had a family, a farm and a wonderful life. Everything seemed perfect until a dangerous conversation took place in heaven. An angel asked God, “Have you noticed how creation has once again turned against you?” God responded, “Certainly you would not include Job. He is faithful and upright.” But the angel retorts, “Why wouldn’t life be good for Job? Has he ever suffered? Has he had anything but your support? Would Job love you if his life were turned upside down?” God, stealing a line from Captain Picard said, “Make it so.”

        This conflicts with the ancient Hebrew tradition that God never punished the righteous. I remind you of the Deuteronomic Code which declares, “If you do what is virtuous, you will live. But if you do that which is evil you will perish.” Over time the Hebrew people questioned the hyperbole of Deuteronomy 30 because they suffered at the hands of the Syrians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and even their next door neighbor. They came to understand that folks with bad intentions are capable of doing harm. But was God the author of their pain? That is a dangerous question.

        Job’s crops failed and a neighbor asked, “What did you do to make God so mad?” Job’s house catches on fire and another neighbor hinted that Job might not be good enough to live in his neighborhood. All of Job’s children died and his wife suggested Job might as well kill himself. They were all convinced Job had done the unspeakable. He had transgressed against the Almighty and refused to admit it.

        We, the readers feel for Job. We know he is innocent. We the readers begin a dialogue that doesn’t really matter to the storyteller. We claim an injustice has been done. We are outraged. But at what point do we ask who is responsible? Crops failed, a house is destroyed, lives are lost, and for what? Unlike the Storyteller, we can’t claim God is guilty. After all, why would we be here if we believed God capable of such atrocities?

        But the writer of Job dared to ask the impossible. Through conversations with neighbors and an argument with his wife, Job proclaimed his innocence. But no one believed him. His punishment seemed proof enough that Job had transgressed. Finally, the friends and wife leave Job to his own demise. For thirty seven chapters God listened to the arguments made by Job. Never once does Job deny his faith in the Almighty. But that doesn’t mean that Job, didn’t desire an answer. Finally God spoke. Only there were no answers, only questions.


Who are you?

        Where were you when I created the earth?

        What do you know about anything?


        Many years ago, when the word omnipotence was part of my regular vocabulary and Calvin’s Institutes resided on my night stand, those questions were enough. They reminded me of my place in creation. They confirmed God as the creator of the universe whose wisdom and power far exceeded anything my mind might grasp. I fully embraced the notion of, “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, thanks be to God.” After all, considering the vastness of the universe, who was I that God should even take notice. And then I began to read the Psalms.

        It is not that I never read the Psalms, it was just my selection was limited. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” “Happy are those who delight in the law of the Lord.”

“I was glad when they said unto me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”  “Make a joyful noise to the Lord. Worship the Lord with gladness.” “I lift up my eyes to the hills.” “God is our refuge and strength.” Those were the Psalms I memorized. These are the Psalms that still roll off my tongue. These are the Psalms we sing on Sunday Morning. But the Book of Psalms contains 144 other poems and many of them stand in strong opposition to the book of Job.   One example is Psalm 22.

        My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

        Why are you so far from hearing me?

        Why do you not acknowledge my groaning?

        I cry by day and you do not answer.

        I cry by night, but find no rest.

        YET YOU ARE HOLY. Our ancestors trusted you.

        They cried out and were delivered.

        You did not put them to shame.

        There are religious and philosophical traditions that teach pain can be overcome with an adjustment in attitude. Some folks believe one expresses faith by accepting trauma without getting depressed.  After all, who are we to question why our lives become complicated? Doesn’t God have a plan? Don’t we trust the Great Architect?

Try running that by the writer of Psalm 22. The writer of this poem is not weak. The writer of this poem does not lack faith. In fact it is quite the opposite. The poet has a long memory of the relationship between God and God’s people. Something has happened to this poet. It may be an illness or death in his family. It may be the poet has been falsely accused of a crime. In his despair, in his pain, he screams not to but at God. “Why have you forsaken me?” The poet is not blaming God. The poet is informing God that he is in pain and feels deserted.

        What gives the poet the right to make such a demand on the creator of the universe? It is very simple. He believes he is in a covenant relationship with God. And why would he believe this? The cornerstone of the Hebrew faith states, “I will be your God and you will be my people.”

        In the story of Job, a complaint is raised and God responds, “Why should I care about you?” If the book of Job had been written by the Psalmist, Job would have responded, “Because you are Holy. Because you promised to never be far from me.”  In the book of Deuteronomy Moses is asked how Yahweh is different from other gods and Moses responds, “What other nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God who answers whenever we call.”

        The difference between the Book of Job and Psalms is the poet believes he has both the right and responsibility to complain. This complaint is seen as an outrageous act of faith. To paraphrase Walter Brueggemann, “Yahweh acts in freedom, but Yahweh’s fidelity to the covenant binds Yahweh to hear and answer.”  This continues in the gospels when Jesus promises, “I will be with you always.”

        When we are in pain, our greatest mistake is remaining silent. Our cry is more than a complaint.  It is a declaration of faith.  If we didn’t believe, why would we call out? Like our Hebrew mothers and fathers our relationship with God is based on the belief that God wants to be part of our joy and pain because God’s Holy Presence offers hope even when everyone else has turned aside.

So what is it that I am trying to say today? Do I want you to discard the Book of Job? Certainly not, it is a wonderful piece of literature. All I am suggesting when you call on God and the response is, “Who are you?” perhaps you are praying to the wrong god.              To God be the glory.