Sunday, November 25, 2018

Give Thanks

Psalm 98
        I realize today is Christ the King Sunday but I thought I would break from protocol and talk about giving thanks.   I know for most folks Thanksgiving means turkey, Pilgrims and football.  But when I am serious about giving thanks, I go straight to the Psalms. One of my favorites is Psalm 98, a delightful song written at the end of the Babylonian Captivity.  It captures a nation’s joy as God welcomes the Hebrews home.  The Jews had spent a generation in captivity.  Their sadness and despair is captured in Psalm 137, “How can you sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”  But with news that the Persians were releasing the Jews, sheer delight leapt from the lips of the Psalmist as he “sang a new song to the Lord.”
        Some of you may think I am getting a bit too excited over a song written 2400 years ago.   For me, the Psalms are as relevant today as they were when they were first created. They are songs of joy, sorrows, delights, and disappointments.  That stuff never goes out of date.  Did you know the inspiration for   “Joy to the World” was Psalm 98?  Psalms live forever because they express the very essence of who we are in our ongoing relationship with God.   I like to think of the Psalmist as yesterday’s folk music. The Psalmists remind me of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Mavis  Staples, or Doc Watson.
        I have been fortunate enough to witness each of those folks in concert, but perhaps my favorite was Doc Watson. I realize in the last 50 years there have been a plethora of great guitar players.  But most of them weren’t blind.  Doc was born in Deep Gap NC in 1923.  He contracted an eye infection as an infant and was blind before his first birth day.  Doc referred to his blindness as a hindrance, not a disability.  He grew up listening to his father and mother singing gospel songs in their Baptist Church.  Through their music Doc developed a relationship with God  that lasted his entire life.  As a teenager Doc bought his first guitar from money he had earned sawing wood.  For the next 30 years this blind musician sang gospel at church. At local events he would sing songs from Appalachia about lost loves, shady groves and blackberry blossoms.   In 1963 he played the Newport Folk Festival and became a national sensation.  Doc’s singing and playing allowed him to share his music to listeners all over the United States.  One of those listeners was his son Merle.
        At 14 Merle decided he wanted to follow in his famous father’s footsteps.  Doc’s wife Rosa Lee taught Merle his first chords.  The boy was a natural.  Together Doc and Merle toured and made more than 20 records.  It all came to a tragic end in 1985.  In a freakish accident Merle rolled his tractor down a hill and was killed instantly.  Pain still swelled in Doc’s voice when he spoke of his son but he did not allow tragedy to still his voice.  Doc continued to use his music to heal anyone with a broken heart.  Yes Doc sang about prison, lost love, and all those tragic stories that accompany Appalachian folklore. But even when he sang a sad song he sang as a witness to his God who could heal all pain.
        What a gift to be able to sing in the midst of personal tragedy.  How often, when our lives go sideways, do we allow the circumstances to completely derail us?  Some folks wonder why God would place such an obstacle in their way.  They look for cosmic reasons for the misfortune.  The hard truth is when adversity occurs, often the pain is self-inflicted.  Health problems can be related to heath choices.  Financial problems are usually connected to priority choices.  Relational problems are usually linked to behavioral choices.  Add to that the reality that we live in a world where too many folks are only concerned with their own agenda.  How are we to do to respond to this obvious recipe for destruction?
        Perhaps we should try singing.  Why are we so quick to blame God for our calamities? Why not give thanks that God seems to never leave us no matter who deep a hole we may have dug. I’ve shared the story of Doc Watson, but I suspect each of you has a friend or family member that seems to handle adversity better than the rest of us.  How do they do it? I suspect they have an unquenchable faith in God, and I suspect they love to sing, even if they can’t hold a tune.
        Because he spent a good part of his early life in the spinning room of a Cotton Mill, my father was deaf in one ear and the other one wasn’t much better.  Even with the miracle of hearing aids, he was pretty much has been reduced to reading lips.    When more than one person was talking around him it was virtually impossible for him to hear anything because of the multiple sounds. So he would start humming to himself.  My father loved music but he always sang out of tune.  When Dad started humming, it was so far off key it drove the rest of us crazy.  But it didn’t matter. Amidst the chaos of all the noise swirling through his head, he hummed.  Sometimes it resembled a hymn.  Sometimes I thought he was recreating a jazz favorite. It really didn’t matter. Whatever he was humming was a song of salvation that triumphed over the chaos.
        Listen once again to the amazing words of Psalm 98.  “Sing a new song to the Lord for God has done marvelous things.  God has remembered to be steadfast in love and faithfulness.  Make a joyful noise to the Lord.  Let the sea roar, let the floods clap their hands. For the Lord will judge the world with righteousness and the people with equity.” 
I can’t imagine not having a song in my heart. It would be like taking for granted that each morning the sun rose. How can one live without inspiration. I have a friend who gets excited by reading the obituaries and discovering his name is not there. I watch the way you celebrate your children and grandchildren?  I’ve yet to hear a grandparent remain silent over a child’s first step or first word. So why don’t we celebrate, why don’t we sing more often?   What if each morning we got up excited about the possibilities before us?   What if each evening we gave thanks for clean running water, road systems, refrigeration, vaccinations, farmers, and all those unnamed folks that make our life comfortable?  What if, as we prepare to retire for the evening, we spend just a moment remembering that in the best of times and the worst of times, God still knows us and God still loves us?  That would certainly give us something to sing about.  As the great saxophonist Charlie Parker explained, “Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your own wisdom, sung. When you sing what you thought was ordinary, you create something you never imagined possible.”
        Or to borrow words from Harry Chapin,
        Music is our life, not our livelihood.
        We sing to make us happy,
We sing to make us feel good.
        We sing from our heart and we sing from our soul.
        It doesn’t matter how well we sing,
        It just makes us whole.
        We all need to sing, not for an audience, but for our mental and spiritual health.  We need to sing a song to the Lord, always remembering, that even in the midst of overwhelming tragedy or personal grief, the Lord continues to do be with us, giving us reason to sing even it might be the blues .  We need to celebrate God’s hand in our lives so we can sing songs of praise, songs of joy and songs of hope.
        Now I know many of you swear you can’t sing a note. So let me teach you a song you can whisper or shout each day.
Repeat after me:
        Sing a new song,
                Sing a new song to the Lord,
                        For God has done marvelous things.     Amen.


Sunday, November 18, 2018

Sometimes God Turns our World Upside Down

Mark 13:1-8; I Samuel 2:1-10


        When our “formulae for life” works, our days may be dull, but they are none-the-less predictable. I find the older I get, predictable works for me. There is only one problem. I don’t live alone on an island. Sometimes my vision of truth and justice might not be the same as a person I greatly respect. Sometimes values I hold dear begin to crumble. Sometimes, life, with all its ups and downs, crashes upon me in ways I least expected. The situation might be financial. It might be a crisis created by the health or welfare of a family member. And then sometimes, my “formulae for life” explodes. My existence is turned upside down and I find no stability in the assurances of the past. I suspect I am not the only one here who has experienced such a dilemma.

        In my 20’s and 30’s my father and I saw eye to eye on two things.  Golf was the most difficult sport ever invented and Harry Chapin our favorite song writer. One of my favorites was,

All my life’s a circle, sunrise and sundown,

Moon rolls through the night time,

till the daybreak comes around.

All my life’s a circle, but I can’t tell you why.

Seasons spinning round again,

The years keep rolling by.


That song, that faith in the circle of life, gave me this incredible belief that if I could just hang on long enough to what I knew to be true, a normalcy, a sense of peace, would always return to my soul. But then a frightening revelation destroyed my anchor.    GOD DOES NOT DO CIRCLES!

Once there was a woman whose name was Hannah. She lived during a time when Judges ruled the land of Israel. One verse that continually runs through the Book of Judges declared, “The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of God.” Time after time God would appoint a judge to rescue the wayward people. Some of the judges were notable. Others were not. Regardless, when the crisis was averted, the Israelites would return to their old habits and the circle of corruption would return.  Eventually God grew weary.

Hannah was childless. Being a woman was hard enough. Being barren eliminated any social status. There is no circle of life for a woman incapable of reproduction. In desperation Hannah prayed that God would give her a child. She promised to make the child a ward of the Priest if her request was granted. The request was given and Hannah offered an astonishing prayer to an extraordinary God. 

There is no one as Holy as You.

You break the bows of the mighty.

You give strength to the weak.

You give life to the barren.

You lift up the poor and bring down the rich.

You guard the faithful.

You cast the wicked into darkness.

Your adversaries shall be shattered.

You judge the earth with righteousness.

You will anoint for us a king and give him your virtue.



The child was called Samuel. He became the anointer of Kings. First Saul, then David, received the blessing of the son of Hannah. The day of the judges was over.  Israel entered a new era. Unfortunately the kings turned out to be no better than the judges. Amos, Micah, Elijah, Jeremiah and others, reminded the kings of the prayer of Hannah. One by one the prophets proclaimed, “This is the new way of our God.” But the kings returned to their circle of death and Jerusalem was eventually destroyed by Babylon.

But out of the ashes arose a new song. Out of the ashes came a proclamation that God was going to do a new thing. God would restore Jerusalem. God would rebuild the Temple. God would build a new heaven and new earth. In Isaiah 61 the prophet proclaimed, “God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed and the brokenhearted. God will release the captive and out of ancient ruins will create a kingdom based on justice and righteousness. Strangers will be welcome. The orphan and the widow will be lifted up. Everlasting joy will spring for all the nations to witness.”

The temple was built, the city restored, but those who ruled were no better than the judges and kings who had come before them.  But God does not grow weary. God does not faint. Even though the Temple turned from the ancient commandments, God would not be discouraged.

The story I told may not be familiar to all of you. It was the story of God’s faithfulness to the children of Abraham even when those same children couldn’t remember their grandfather’s name. But you will know the next story I share. Once again a woman was selected to be the vessel of God’s grace. On learning her fate Mary offered a prayer of thanks to God. The words aren’t original. She prays practically the same prayer offered by Hannah.

My soul rejoices in God my savior.

God has looked with favor on my lowliness.

God will scatter the proud.

God will bring down the powerful.

God will lift up the lowly.

God will fill the hungry with good things.

God will remember the promise made to Abraham.


Jesus was born. But while God continually pushes us forward, we cling to a circle of death which repeats the mistakes of the Judges, and the Kings, and eventually the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus saw this coming. He pointed to the Temple and said, “It is about to be destroyed but something new will emerge.”

In the year 70 AD, about forty years after the death of Jesus and a couple of years before the writing of Mark’s gospel, The Roman Empire destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. It has never been rebuilt.

But it has been replaced. Slowly but surely a new heaven and earth emerged right under the nose of the most powerful empire known to humankind. Small communities of faith burst through the soil of oppression and bloomed. And who were these brave souls? They were woman without power, slaves without freedom, men without prestige, save for the power, and freedom, and prestige they discovered through the righteousness of God. They broke the circle and found life by looking toward the promise of a new tomorrow.

They became the early church. Against all odds they survived. Yes, the history of the Christian church has been as problematic as the story I shared from the Old Testament. Yet God’s righteousness, God’s mercy, and God’s love continue to point to a new heaven and new earth. 

We understand life within the small circle of our limited experience. We understand power within the restricted scope of what we think to be true. This story of God moving through history defies our logical thoughts. How is it possible to create life out of chaos?  Perhaps we have become so intelligent, so advanced, so proud, that we can no longer see beyond our own existence. Even as we move into the season of Christmas, we surround ourselves with silly songs, dancing elves, and marathon shopping lest we pause to examine the absurdity of God’s imagination.

Zechariah spoke these words to Mary. “Blessed be you. By the tender mercies of God, the dawn will break from on high upon us. Light will be given to those who dwell in darkness and we shall walk in the way of peace.”

Who could have seen the birth of Jesus coming? No one! It had never happened before. And the imagination of God did not stop with that birth. God continues to do new things. God continues to invite us to follow a path of righteousness, of justice, and of peace. O yes it is a bumpy road. O yes it defies conventional wisdom. O yes we will become discouraged. But do not allow the weariness of the day to deter you from bursting into tomorrow. That is where God is found. God never circles the wagons. It is always full speed ahead.

With God, the covenant is always being renewed.

With God, hope is always being realized.

With God. no chaos is beyond transformation.

This is what God has always done.

Why should tomorrow be any different?





Sunday, November 11, 2018

Fidelity and Hospitality

Mark 12:38-44; Ruth 3:1-5
        In the text this morning, three women, two named and one unnamed, are defined as righteous. Ironically, all three are widows, all three are poor, one is a resident alien and each understands fidelity and hospitality as essential tenants in one’s relationship with God.
Let’s begin with the unnamed widow in the Gospel of Mark. During Stewardship season I can’t imagine a more popular example flowing from pulpits all over America. “This woman gave everything she had.” Ministers take that line and do what we do best.  We explain to you what Jesus was really thinking. 
Some of my colleagues will cease on this text as an opportunity to make you feel GUILTY because if we make you guilty enough, you might succumb to any request. The guilt sermon goes as follows.
Look at this poor woman. She has been deserted by her culture. Even her family has abandoned her. She has nothing, except two coins. She had planned to use them for one last meal but then she thought, “The Lord has a use for them.” She placed her coins in the offering plate. She gave everything she had to God. In light of her sacrifice, how can we who have been so blessed, not return a portion of our abundance to God. The Almighty doesn’t want it all but don’t you think God deserves more than our measly two cents.
A generation ago that sermon was a killer. Many a church budget was supported by pleas of guilt of which had as their mantra give till it hurts.
Well times have changed. Guilt is not as motivating a factor it once was. Folks long for a different massage from the high holy places. And we ministers, if nothing else, are flexible. The new approach has been the widow gave everything she had, and God blessed her.  The common name for this newest approach to Biblical interpretation is “The Prosperity Gospel.”  The sermon might sound like this.
The poor widow got up facing another day which appeared would be like every other day. There were no possibilities, no hopes. But on that morning a friend came by and persuaded her to come to the synagogue to hear the words of the new rabbi. He spoke a fresh message. Rabbi Joel promised that if we trusted God, if we gave our hearts to God, wonderful things would happen. So the widow went to the synagogue, she heard the promises of Rabbi Joel, and she gave all that she had. Miraculously, from then on every morning the widow woke up with enough food to make it through the day. Imagine what God will do for you if you follow the example of that poor widow.
Excuse me for being a bit cynical but I have looked all through the Gospel of Mark and I can’t find anything about the fate of the widow once she left the synagogue. But that doesn’t stop ministers, especially those with TV contracts, from making it up as they go. I wonder how many folks spilt their contributable giving between TV shysters and lottery tickets, hoping one of them will pay off?
I can understand why ministers want to manipulate this passage. Better to preach about the widow than reveal that Jesus’ real interest is in the clergy who, “walk around with long robes, dispatching lengthy prayers as they devour widows houses.” This is not a stewardship text but rather a condemnation aimed at the synagogue or any other place of worship which has forgotten who they are supposed to be. Well I can play the imagination game with the best of them.
The widow makes her way to the synagogue just as she had done every other Sabbath.  The reading for this particular morning was the story of Naomi and Ruth. Two women, both widows, both poor, leave Ruth’s native soil to seek sanctuary in the land where Naomi was born. Naomi tells Ruth in her tradition righteousness is defined through the fidelity of God and the hospitality of God’s people.  Ruth believes this and tells her mother-in-law, “Where you go I will go. Your people shall be my people. Your God shall be my God.”  They settled near Bethlehem. A righteous man named Boaz allowed the pair to take grain from his fields. The story ends with Ruth marrying Boaz and Naomi embracing her new role as grandmother. The rabbi closed the scroll and declared, “Let us be a holy people, inspired by the fidelity of Naomi and the hospitality of Boaz.”
The widow was inspired and thought, “I cannot change the world but I can do my small part toward the safety and welfare of those next to me.” So she gave her two coins.  Only the coins never reached their intended destination. They went into the pocket of the Rabbi who used them for his own pleasure. And no one noticed, except Jesus.
Churches are known for their grand plans. 100 years ago every denomination had a missionary fund. We collected money to send missionaries throughout the world to convert the heathen. Fifty years ago we started concentrating on the local population filling tents and football stadiums as traveling evangelists would arrive with promises to drive Satan from our midst. We are too sophisticated for that kind of nonsense today. Churches are program driven. Churches have turned Sunday morning into a magical mystery tour. Churches are doing whatever they can do to increase membership and budget. Our emphasis is growth, a competition that creates rivals rather than brothers and sisters in Christ. What happened to fidelity and hospitality? What happened to faithfully caring for each other?
I see an incredible parallel between Veterans Day and the image Jesus had for the church. Now don’t get excited. We are not going to end the service singing, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” But I want you to notice a similarity between church members and soldiers. I was in the Army briefly, but more significantly in Virginia Beach I served a church filled with combat veterans.  I listened and wept as they shared stories of losing friends.  Universally they joined as patriots desiring to fight for a glorious cause. But somewhere patriotism was replaced with the welfare and survival of their closest comrades.  Shakespeare best describes this in his play Henry V. On St. Crispin’s Day, Prince Hal stood before an outnumbered group of farmers on the wrong side of the British Channel.  They couldn’t even remember why they are fighting. Hal speaks, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
One by one veterans have told me in the end they didn’t fight so much for their country, or for some great cause but rather for that person beside them. Their world became no larger than those brothers and sisters in their platoon. 
The church is no different. We are not here primarily because of our loyalty to some ancient Theological Creed. Each Sunday we come to sit in the same pew and be comforted by those closest to us. We care for each other’s welfare. Gradually we expand our band of brothers and sisters to include someone all the way across the sanctuary. We wave at them during the passing of the peace and catch up with them during the fellowship hour. And then eventually, we take on the role of a Naomi, or a Ruth, or Boaz.  We expand our band of brothers and sisters into the community. We seek out rather than ignore the poor. We shelter rather than exclude the widow. And sometimes we even dare to hear the story of the sojourner. This is when we become the church Jesus always envisioned. You see the church of Jesus Christ is not about big programs, complicated theological axioms, or deep pockets. It is about deep hearts and clear eyesight inspired by God’s fidelity. It is about clergy and church members practicing endless acts of hospitality.
We few; we happy few; we band of brothers and sisters in Christ. Let’s make the most of the gifts God has given us.
To God be the Glory.   Amen.