Drew’s Final Sunday

On Sunday, May 31st, we sent Pastor Drew Harrison and his wife Hannah to Philadelphia with our love, prayers, and best wishes. FPC hosted a luncheon in his honor and a baby shower for he and his wife Hannah’s coming joy (Jane was born on Drew and Hannah’s first day in Philadelphia, and they give thanks to God for all the wonderful gifts of the congregation). Here is Drew’s sermon for the occasion. The text was 2 Corinthians 4:1-18.

Lighting the Way

            One of the things that we do each week is light these two candles. The candles represent Christ’s light for us. We light the candles at the beginning of worship to remind us that whenever we gather here Christ is with us. “Whenever two or more of you are in one accord, I will be with you,” he told us. Jesus is the light of the world, and so we have these two candles here to tell us that Jesus is here.

            When we put out the candles, we do something strange. We don’t just blow the candles out. We light the candlelighter, and we carry the light out to the door before we put it out. This too holds deep meaning for us. We carry the light out of the service because we carry Christ’s light with us as we go out into the world. It is a promise and a challenge. The promise is the one we receive from God in Isaiah 43, that though we pass through water and fire, “I will be with you.” Christ is with us on our journey. The challenge is not to put our light under a bushel. It is our responsibility to bring Christ’s light into the world.

            Each and every week, the lighting of the candle is a testament to the fact that Christ is with us. His presence is with us when we gather here, and we bring him with us wherever we go from here.

            Now in another church this process might be so easy and so simple that it goes completely unnoticed. But not in this church. For us, getting the candles lit each Sunday is a struggle. Perhaps you remember some of the times we’ve had problems getting the candles lit. Sometimes it takes two, three, or four of us to get the flame burning. Sometimes it takes us so long that Loy Nell has to play the prelude three times before we’re done. Other times we forget, and somebody runs back and lights them during the first hymn. I remember one time when one of the boys was having an awful time getting his candle lit, and someone, maybe Jeff or Randal had gone up to help. Well, they finally got it lit; only the candle got knocked over on the downswing. And whoever it was caught it right there in their hand before it could fall all the way down. Had that gone a different way, we could have really been on fire for Christ.

            Now some folks might say that we need to do something to fix these problems. Pass the duty on to more responsible people, host acolyte training, or switch to those Olympic torch things that just cut on if you get anywhere close. And I see their point. Mistakes in worship can be distracting, and pull us out of a worshipful state of mind. But for me at least, lighting the candles has become one of the most meaningful parts of worship. Because if we’re really talking about bearing Christ’s light into the world, our experience at First Presbyterian Church is much more accurate than any smooth, well-choreographed ritual. Lighting the candles here is a lot more like sharing the light of Christ than we realize.

            Bringing Christ’s light with us is not easy. It’s not easy to light a candle up over your head with a flame on the end of a three-foot pole. It is not easy to be a light to the people in our lives. When someone comes to us with another sob story asking for money for another cause, it isn’t easy to listen and care, and much less to make a sacrifice in your life for someone halfway across the world. And when your child comes home with a bloody lip, it isn’t easy to teach them how to turn the other cheek. And when you wake up two hours early to care for your grandfather or mother or husband who is slowly losing his battle with time, and they don’t have anything but criticism for you, it’s not easy to smile and say, “I love you.” It’s not easy to put others before ourselves and make friends of our enemies or live servant lives. But we do it anyway.

            Bearing Christ’s light into the world takes all of us. Nearly every person in this church has had a hand in helping light the candles in some way or another. Whether it’s lighting them ourselves, teaching someone to light them, making sure we have lighters and candles, or simply saying it’s okay when someone else messes up, all of us have had to work together to make those lights happen. And in the same way, we do not bring Christ’s light into the world alone. The work of shining our light in the world is an act of the whole church, and when we’re doing it right we’re working together to proclaim the good news of God’s love, and grace, and mercy.

            And it’s messy. No matter what kind of no-drip pure beeswax candles we buy, something always drips all over the paraments. And no matter what sort of perfect doctrine or perfect life you would like to have, bearing Christ’s light is going to get messy and maybe even a little dangerous. Whether it’s reaching out to people and having your own bedrock beliefs challenged, or simply finding that nothing ever goes according to plan, life in Christ is not black and white but rendered in chaotic but beautiful color. And you can’t do ministry without getting a little bit of it on you.

            I came here to First Presbyterian Church knowing exactly what was wrong with the world. I had a head full of seminary ideas and was just waiting to unleash them and watch the revolution happen. I thought people were just selfish, hard-headed, and indifferent. I thought if I preached well enough, that ought to turn things around. But as I’ve come to speak with you, and as I’ve come to know you and love you and treasure you, I realize that nothing could be further from the truth. I have come to know a people who constantly challenge themselves to do better, who are passionate about sharing the light of Christ and the warmth of community, and who generously give of their lives until they have nothing left.

            What I didn’t understand was the size of the burden that each of us is carrying around each day. Whether it’s caring for an aging relative, or worrying about a sick daughter, being a mother to someone who doesn’t have one, fighting depression, or carrying around deep, deep wells of grief, it isn’t a disappointment that we haven’t saved the world yet. It’s a miracle that the world hasn’t fallen further apart. It’s amazing that we get out of bed at all. And it is a testament to the Holy Spirit who sustains us and sanctifies us that we can get up on Sunday morning, after being beat up all week, and say, “God is good.”

            When Paul writes his letters, he always begins the letter with a greeting. To the saints of such and such a place. And I’ve always understood that to mean that saints were just like us. Sort of like People magazine’s “Stars! They’re just like us!” You know, saints walk the dog, they go to the grocery store, they have bad hair days. The idea I got from it was that saints were ordinary people. But now I understand those words a different way. Because having seen what it takes to live life in this broken, messy, difficult world, I know now that it takes nothing less than the extraordinary. So to all those who are holding the church together while falling apart themselves, who keep lighting those candles even as darkness threatens to overcome them, you are saints, in the holiest, and most divine sense of the word: you are extraordinary, and your presence here is a light to us all.

            That’s why I love the way we light the candles here. Because here we are, a small group of people, who don’t always have that much light in our lives to spare. But we do not lose heart. And though bearing that light is no longer easy or simple, if it ever was, each and every week we find a way to get the candles lit. Whether it’s asking someone who shouldn’t have to or teaching someone who isn’t ready yet or simply being exhausted, but doing it anyway. If you’re the type to believe in miracles, this is most definitely one. If you’re not, then it is simply the extraordinary work of ordinary people, a light in a darkened room, treasure in clay jars.

            We light them so that in the darkness we might not lose our way, and we carry them with us that others might find their paths by Christ’s light. And though we are afflicted in every way, we refuse to give up, carrying this light with us so that Jesus might be visible through us, that the world of death may be refuted by a Word of life, and so that we do not lose heart.

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What Were You Arguing About on the Way?

Sermon from May 3rd, 2015. The text for this week’s sermon was Mark 9:30-37.

What Were You Arguing About on the Way?

The first sentence in the book of Mark declares that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. But it isn’t until about halfway through the book that Jesus explains to us what that means. In Chapter 8, verse 34, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it…” he continues, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father and with the holy angels.” From this point on, Jesus has turned his face toward Jerusalem and the cross, and he will not swerve to the right or to the left.

The disciples are on this journey with Jesus, making their way towards Jerusalem, but they don’t fully understand where they are going. As they are passing through Galilee on the way to Capernaum, they get into a heated discussion about which one of them is the greatest. And when they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus asks them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” And the disciples have nothing to say.

The disciples have nothing to say because they know they’ve been caught talking about what they’re really thinking. Jesus has been showing and telling them for years now, that the Way that he is proclaiming involves making yourself low. He is explaining that he is on his way to be betrayed, handed over, and executed as a terrorist. And the disciples are jockeying for position. What were they arguing about on the way? They were competing with each other and ignoring where they were going.

There’s an old Adam Sandler movie called Billy Madison. I don’t know if any of y’all have ever seen it, and it’s pretty juvenile so don’t count this as a ringing endorsement or anything. The idea is that a worthless playboy has to go through K-12 education and graduate in 4 weeks in order to prove that he should inherit his father’s company. So he has to retake all the grades. And while he is in first grade they go on a field trip to a farm, and when it’s time to come back, Billy notices that one of the other students is missing. Billy finds him hiding behind the barn because he’s had an accident, and he doesn’t want the other kids to see. And Billy sees this kid and the embarrassment that he’s about to experiment, and he runs over to the water pump and splashes a ton of water on his pants. And when they get back on the bus, Billy walks in first, with water all down his leg, and the kids look at him and say “Did you just pee your pants?” and Billy says, “Yes. And you know what it’s cool.”

He made himself a fool, so that his friend wouldn’t look foolish. He made himself low, so that his friend wouldn’t have to experience humiliation. In a nutshell, this is what Jesus did. He knew the law and the Torah and he was a good and righteous Jew but he ate with tax collectors and sinners, the outcasts and the dirty people and the marginalized of their society. He could have been great, but he made himself low. He made himself low, to reject the artificial hierarchies of who is great and who is not, and who is worth loving and who isn’t.

But making yourself low is hard work. As Christianity turned from an outlaw religion into state religion, being Christian no longer required the sacrifice of aligning yourself with the marginalized. Christians became parts of the structure of power, and you could be powerful and a Christian. For most of American history, being a Christian was a prerequisite to power. In colonial times, Christians set themselves above others, and guarded the keys to the kingdom zealously. Christians were good, respectable folk, and anyone else was a no-good wastrel. And Christians had to go through long and intense interviews in order to prove their faith to the church.

And even now we struggle with this issue. When we talk about Christianity we often equate Christianity with righteousness, which leads us to assume that as Christians we are more righteous than everyone else. When we talk about avoiding temptation, we talk about surrounding ourselves with people of faith, which often means avoiding exactly those people whom Jesus sought out.

I struggle this when I hear people say negative things about Christianity. I want to defend the church, and so I find myself arguing against those people rather than listening to them. Trying to protect our reputation is what leads to people covering up the Church’s mistakes instead of trying to resolve them.

And even within Christianity, I find it easy think of myself as better than other Christians, because I believe the right things and they don’t, or I adopt certain behaviors that others don’t, or I support the right causes, and they don’t. I get in facebook arguments with people, which is never a good look. It’s easy to feel superior because I agree with myself, and surround myself with people who agree with me. And so I live in my smug little world and congratulate myself for being right and argue that my way is better then everyone else’s way, mostly to people who already agree with me.

But this isn’t what Jesus demanded of us. He didn’t walk around talking about how he was better than the temple priests; he touched lepers instead. He didn’t scorn tax collectors because they took advantage of the people; he loved them and shared with them so that they wouldn’t take advantage of the people. He didn’t stand in the Temple all day arguing to score points against the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the Herodians. He put a kid in his lap and said, “Be more like him.” He looked at his disciples arguing over who was the best, and said “What were you arguing about on the way?”

What is fascinating about this particular question is that phrase, “The Way.” Before Christians were known as Christians, back when they were just groups of people meeting in homes to eat bread and drink wine and recount stories of their Lord, they referred to themselves as followers “The Way.” The earliest self-designation of Christians we have is this phrase, “The Way.” In Acts, Saul gets permission to go to Damascus to persecute followers of The Way before his conversion. In the earliest known catechism, called the Didache, or the Teachings of the Twelve Apostles, the first sentence describes two ways, the way of death and the way of life.

In other words, “The Way” isn’t just the road to Jerusalem, it is the whole endeavor of trying to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. The Way is the path that Jesus followed, a path of resistance to domination by not trying to climb up the ladder but making himself low. Jesus said if we don’t fight each other but fight for each other, then we might have a chance to overcome the forces of human sinfulness and corrupted power and dwell in the Kingdom of God. It isn’t about becoming great, it is about making greatness irrelevant.

And my great fear is that the time of reckoning will come. And I shall see my Lord face to face, and my Lord will say, “What were you arguing about on the way?” And I will have nothing to say for myself.

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Sermon for April 19th, 2015

Here is Drew’s sermon for the Sunday of April 19th, 2015. The text for this week was Romans 12:1-8.

A Living Sacrament

There were a lot of special people in the church where I grew up. There was/were:

  • Bill Garner*, who kept a roll’s worth of quarters in his pockets and would give 50 cents to anyone who wanted to buy a coke from the coke machine. I learned from him to always have something to give, even if it isn’t a lot.

  • Freya Allen, who spearheaded our church’s involvement in one of Memphis’s homeless ministries. I learned from her how to be fired up about mission, and people who were down on their luck weren’t really any different from me.

  • Henri Barden – Henri and his wife Susanna raised a generation of youth in my church, but I was too young to have them. But I remember at a church party watching him listen and learn from someone about how our tax structure affects the poor, and I learned too things: you never stop learning or trying to be better, and being a Christian involves thinking about how the system affects the weak and vulnerable, and fighting to change it when necessary.

  • And George and Milla Evans: When my grandparents couldn’t come to school with me on grandparents day because they lived far away, George and Milla would come to school and be my grandparents. They taught me that love went beyond family, and that adding more people into your family didn’t mean there was any less love.

These weren’t the only special people in my congregation, and probably if you ask me a week from now I would share with you a whole new batch of people. It just so happens that I was thinking about these people this week because I got into a conversation about communion.

I went out for beer with some friends the other day, and somehow we got to talking about Communion and transubstantiation. Transubstantiation is the Catholic understanding of communion, that sometime during the Eucharistic prayer, the bread and wine turn into the actual physical body and blood of Jesus.

And my friend, he’s a good old boy, Presbyterian, explains that Presbyterians don’t believe in transubstantiation. He said, “We believe that communion is a symbol of Jesus body and blood, but not the real thing.” Now that’s not the kind of thing you say around a Presbyterian minister, because Presbyterian ministers can be kind of particular about that kind of thing. We’re particular about that kind of thing because ordination exams are particular about that kind of thing, which is largely because many of the denominational divides turn on little points of dogma like this one. I could the words coming, a long speech about the technical differences between the different denominations and their various understandings of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. I had to take a big swallow of beer to keep that down. And it didn’t work. A few minutes later, I did clarify just a minor distinction.

Presbyterians do not believe that the bread and wine are just symbols. We don’t believe that when Jesus said “This is my body” he meant “This represents my body.” We do believe that Jesus is actual factual present in the bread, we simply believe that it is a metaphysical reality rather than a physical reality. Jesus’ body and blood are spiritually present in the bread and the wine. Think of what happened in our Gospel story, for example. The doors to the Upper Room were locked, and Jesus came into the room. As Jesus passed through the doors, in some sense he was present in the door. But the door didn’t suddenly acquire the physical properties of Jesus.

Presbyterians believe that the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Communion are signs. And that’s the biblical meaning of sign. As in, “The Lord himself with give you a sign. Look the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). As in, “And this shall be a sign for you, you shall find the child wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger.” A sign is evidence that what you hear is true.

The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament. And a sacrament is a sign of an alternate reality, the reality of Christ’s love for us, the reality of Christ’s death on the cross. In the way that a seal on an old letter would tell you who it was from, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is a seal on the promises of forgiveness and resurrection, so that we know who they came from. If we trust in Him, then we can trust in them.

The point of Baptism and Communion is that they point to a deeper reality, they are physical tangible means of experiencing the realities behind them. Jesus gave these signs to his disciples so that they would trust in his promises. They were passed down to us so that we would know these promises. And we pass them down to our children so that they will know his promises too.

Which brings me back to those special people at Balmoral Presbyterian Church. I know the promises of God because of those special people. They passed them on to me. And here’s the thing. Those people weren’t symbols of the love of God. They were signs. If George and Milla Evans could love me like their child even though I wasn’t, then God could love me like God’s child too. If Bill Garner could be generous with everyone that he meets, then maybe I could too. If Freya Allen could change people’s lives just by putting up some beds for them in the Sunday School rooms, then I could change the world too.

The people that I grew up with were living sacraments. They were living, breathing signs that God’s promise is real. I suspect that any one of us who really thinks about it could find a few living sacraments in their own lives, people whose lives were signs and seals of God’s promises to us.

This is, of course, who we are called to be. We are called to use our lives to point at another reality, the reality of Christ’s love for us all. And we do it in the simplest ways possible. We watch out for someone’s kids. Offer a helping hand to someone in need. Invite strangers into our homes and our lives and our church.

It is as easy ordinary as bread and juice. But for all those who come after us, it will be a sign of the infinite love and redeeming grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. However we want to articulate or explain it, you can be sure that Jesus himself will be present in it.

*I changed names, because I’d hate for someone to be embarrassed or upset by what I said about them.

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Easter!

Happy Easter! Christ is Victorious! Below you’ll find Drew’s Easter Sermon. Here is St. John Chrysostom’s Famous Paschal Homily, from which we read during the service. The text for the Easter Sermon was Luke 24:1-12.

Ignoring the Message

            If you hear bad news often enough, you’re liable to get used to it. And the longer you’ve been used to hearing bad news, the more likely you are to come to expect it. Whether it’s bouncing from doctor to doctor, trying to get an answer, or from bank to bank, trying to get a loan, or losing a friend, a mother, a child. One bad thing leads to another, and another, and another. The rain doesn’t come. Budget cutbacks. The bad news wears you down until you aren’t even sure what good news looks like. That’s what was happening to Jairus. His daughter had been sick. Now she was dying.

            When it first happened he was expecting it to turn around at any moment. She’ll get better the next day, or the next, he thought. But days stretch into weeks, and longer. And the more bad news he got, the more normal it became. His mind became filled with the dreams that would no longer come true, and the child who once caused his eyes to well up with joy now brought him to weep with despair.

            Which is why he wasn’t surprised when on his way to her with the healer, Jesus, a messenger came and told him she was dead. Bad news didn’t surprised him anymore. What did surprise him was Jesus. Jesus had obviously heard the conversation, but kept on walking anyway, as if the message didn’t matter. When Jairus caught up to him, he opened his mouth to tell Jesus he could go home, there was no need to bother him any further. But Jesus turned, and put his hand on his shoulder, and said to him “Do not fear, just believe.”

            When they arrived at the house they told him once again that the girl was dead. And once again Jesus ignored the message. He told the mourners that she was only asleep. He said the same thing when Lazarus died. The disciples would only later understand what he meant. The Lord has power over death such that to him death is no more permanent than sleep is permanent.[1] The weepers laughed that he would say such a thing. He sent them away, and it was only the parents, a few disciples, and a lifeless little girl. And he took her hand and said, “Little girl, get up.” And she did.

            We live in a world filled with messages of death. It’s been two thousand years, and what happened that Easter morning is still unbelievable. Easter represents the triumph of hope over despair. But too often despair is the message we receive.

            “God is dead,” the world tells us. Not always as succinctly as Nietzsche did, but over and over the world proclaims this to us. Religion is no longer necessary in the modern world. Church stuff is fine on Sunday morning, but it doesn’t mean anything in the real world. Prayer is nothing more than wishful thinking.

            That nothing we can do will matter. Can’t. Won’t. Never. Impossible. These are the messages of death that surround us. The child is dead, Jairus, there’s no need to bother the teacher any longer.

            When Jesus was confronted with a message of death and despair, he ignored the message. He brought Jairus along with him, and told him, “Do not fear, just believe.” He continued in the trust that the God who has power over all things, even death, would be with him. He refused to believe the message of despair, because he knew that God would have the final word. And because of that, he was not afraid.

            When it came to Jesus’ own death, the disciples would have done well to remember that day. When word came to them that Jesus has died (none of the twelve were brave enough to go out with Mary and the other women to see), they hid themselves in fear. They thought to themselves, this is it. It’s over. Some even went back to fishing, as if the last three years could be forgotten. But perhaps they wouldn’t have been so afraid had they remembered Jairus and his little girl. Perhaps they wouldn’t have been so quick to believe the message of death if they remembered how Jesus ignored the message and spoke words of life.

            Or perhaps they did remember, but simply couldn’t imagine that it could happen for them. Nevertheless, the first morning following the Sabbath, the third day after his death, some women went to his tomb with spices so that they might bury his body properly. They came expecting death. And they were confronted with life.

            The stone had been rolled away. Two men were there in dazzling robes. One of them said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” Jesus had shown that God has power even over the grave. The Resurrection is God’s victory over sin and death. Easter is our celebration of the triumph of hope over despair.

            The challenge for us is to remember Easter morning in our Good Friday world. The challenge for us is to put our trust in God and ignore the messages that tell us there is no hope. When we are surrounded by bad news, and it threatens to overwhelm us, the challenge for us is to ignore the message and keep on going. Because if we keep on going, whether it is to Jairus’ house or the tomb or down into the valley of the shadow of death, we know that there is resurrection to come.

            Because Christ is risen, we can ignore the messages of death and despair. Because Christ is risen, we no longer have to dwell in sin, but can be born again to eternal life. Because Christ is risen, we can have hope in times of darkness. Because Christ is risen we know that death does not have the final word, but the final word is God’s and it is a word of life. And so we can ignore the message of death and listen for the words of life.

            “Little girl, get up.” he said. The tomb is empty. “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?”

[1] Buechner, Frederick. Whistling in the Dark; A Doubter’s Dictionary. San Francisco: HarpersSanFrancisco, 1988, p. 55.

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Thank You Thank You Thank You, Help Me Help Me Help Me

Sermon for Palm Sunday comes from two passages, Psalm 118 and Luke 19:28-40. We begin our Holy Week Services on Monday at our church at 12:00 noon. There will be a short worship service followed by lunch.

Thank you and Help Me

            Anne Lamott says that all the prayers in the world can be boiled down to two forms. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” and “Help me, Help me, help me” In Psalm 118, and in the Palm Sunday procession, we have them both.

            Every year, the king of Judah would ride, from the direction of the Jordan River valley, into the city of Jerusalem, on an ass. The king would stop at various points along the way and recount his near death at the hands of enemies and how God had defeated them for him.[1] When he arrived at the entrance to the Temple, he would say “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.” Thank you, thank you, thank you. And the chief priests and the royal court would respond “This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.” Together in the Temple they would all cry out to the Lord for help. “Hosanna!” they would say, “Save us!” Help me, help me, help me.

            The whole thing was a special royal ceremony, meant to reaffirm that this was God’s chosen King and God’s chosen Kingdom. Psalm 118 was the liturgy for this procession. The story of the king’s near defeat and then God’s vindication. The stone that the builders rejected had become the cornerstone. The ceremony was celebration of thanksgiving for that God has rescued them from calamity and a plea that God would rescue them again. Thank you. Help me.

            At the beginning of one particular Passover during the reign of Herod, a similar procession occurred. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on an ass from the nearby town of Bethany. Only the chief priests and the royal court were not waiting to invite him in. The first Palm Sunday procession was probably a small procession, and not well recognized.

            There is no one to recognize him because he does not come from traditional centers of power. Bethlehem and Nazareth weren’t exactly hubs of cultural activity. When the disciple Nathanael first hears of Jesus he says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

            There is no one to recognize him because the Gospel that he proclaims challenges the ones in power. Both the “might-makes-right” philosophy of the Romans and the elaborate self-justifications of the wealthy landowning classes are challenged by his teachings. Blessed are the meek. Turn the other cheek. Ye without sin cast the first stone. The last shall be first. His ideas are threatening to their careers and their bank accounts. They will not be there to join in the procession, because they have rejected his teachings. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

            Because the powerful refuse to recognize him, the disciples assume their role and welcome the king. They lay down their cloaks for him, and they wave the royal palms and shout hosanna to their God. The disciples aren’t very impressive people. They aren’t important: fishermen, low-wage laborers, and tax collectors. They aren’t very righteous: they violate the Sabbath, they touch lepers, they’re hardly ever clean. They aren’t very bright: they rarely understand what Jesus is saying.

            There isn’t much special about them, except that when Jesus called, they went. And when the wealthy officials and royal courts don’t show up to welcome Jesus, they do. These crazy fools, silly enough to believe that a kingdom of mercy and righteousness could be real, these are the ones who proclaim his royal entrance. These are the ones who bid him enter the gates of righteousness. These are the ones who say, in spite of the way the world has treated them, “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” The stones that were rejected had become the chief cornerstone.

            Some of the Pharisees who see this procession are angry. They are outraged that the disciples would enact the royal ceremony for Jesus, and welcome him into the city like God’s chosen king. They order Jesus to tell them to stop. But Jesus replies. “I tell you if these were silent, the stones would shout.” If no one had come, God would have drawn praise out from the rock.

            The Gospel that Jesus proclaims is a challenge to the powers and the principalities of this world, then and now. The powerful demand justice, and then write the laws to ensure they will never face it. Jesus says even the standard of justice is too harsh. Jesus proclaims mercy, and asks us to offer no punishment unless we are free of blame. The powers that be divide the world into categories and assign value based on them: cool or uncool, rich or poor, respectable or dishonorable, smart or dumb. You can only be blessed if you look right, act right, or come from the right family. But Jesus invited everyone to the table. The powers that be declare that everything is for sale, and if you have nothing to sell you are worthless. But Jesus proclaims that you are bought and paid for, at the highest price imaginable, more valuable than his own life.

            We face the same choice the disciples had. What do you do when the world refuses to recognize the kingdom? When power and greed and violence reign, and there is no room for mercy, forgiveness, and love. It may seem that there is nothing that we can do. And perhaps it seemed that way for the disciples. But as silly, crazy, and foolish as it may have seemed, they got up and they followed him anyway. And when the time came for them to come to Jerusalem, they proclaimed the reign of Jesus as their ancestors had proclaimed the Messiah long ago.

            They reminded themselves of God’s greatness, of all the things God has done for God’s people. They said thank you, to a God who is good. And they asked for God’s salvation again. They shouted Hosanna. They called for help, to a God who is our present help in times of need.

            And we can do the same thing. We may not be important or powerful, but we have God who is. And our God has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. We can proclaim the kingdom of God, even when our voices seem small and unheard. We can offer our gifts, even when our gifts seem worthless and vain. We can share our cloaks, even when our cloaks are tattered and worn. We can say thank you to a God who has gotten us this far. And we can ask for help, that God would carry us a little bit farther. Because we too are a little bit foolish. And a little bit crazy. And we too believe that the King has come to this world.

[1] Sanders, James. “The Conversion of Paul” Impact no 9 Fall 1982, p. 75.

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Repentance: From Our Heart to Our Hands

Sermon from March 22nd, 2015. The texts for this week’s sermon are Luke 18:18-30 and Acts 16:25-34.

Repentance: From Our Heart to Our Hands

            A woman is being tailgated down a busy avenue by a guy in a Chevy Silverado. When the light turns yellow, she stops before the crosswalk rather than trying to accelerate through the intersection, which forces him to slam on his brakes. He is furious because he wasn’t able to get through the intersection, he’s going to be late for a meeting, and the sudden stop made him spill coffee all over his suit.

And he lets her have it. He slams on the horn and hollers in frustration, and was just in the middle of giving her a piece of his mind when he hears a knock on the window. A very serious looking officer is motioning for him to roll it down. The officer told the man to come out and put his hands on the hood of the car. He takes him down to the station where he is booked, photographed, fingerprinted, and placed in a holding cell.

A few hours later someone comes to get him and escorts him back out to booking, where the arresting officer was there with his clothes and keys.

“I’m very sorry about the confusion, sir.” said the officer. “I pulled up behind you when you were blowing your horn, giving the finger, and swearing like a sailor at the car in front of you. I noticed the What Would Jesus Do? sticker on your bumper, the JC4LIFE vanity tags, and the chrome fish-emblem on your tailgate. Naturally… I assumed you had stolen the car.

This Lent we’re talking about repentance. We’ve talked about how confession is an act of hope, how self-examination helps us become better Christians, and how good things happen when people turn to God. This week we’re going to talk about the nuts and bolts of repentance. Repentance begins with a thought, but it leads to action. Like Christianity as a whole, repentance isn’t about thinking the right things. It is about doing the right things. It isn’t about what you say you believe. It’s about how you live your beliefs. If you found you made a wrong turn on the highway, you wouldn’t keep going in the wrong direction. You’d turn around. In the same way, repentance only means something if we reorient our actions as well as our minds.

We have two stories for today. In our Gospel story for today, a rich young man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. And Jesus tells him that he needs to sell everything that he has, and give it to the poor, and then come follow him.

In our story from Acts, Paul and Silas are thrown into prison in Philippi, and a miracle happens. An earthquake shakes the prison to its foundations, opening the doors and releasing the prisoners from their chains. The jailer is amazed at the power that seems to protect them. He asks what must I do to be saved? And they tell him that what has happened is the work of Jesus Christ.

In both of these stories, someone asks what they must do to receive the blessings of God. And in each story, they are given an honest answer. Become a follower of Jesus Christ. One of them is able to turn himself down the right path. The other is not. One story ends in sadness. The other in rejoicing. And the difference is that the jailer’s experience led him not just to thought, but to action.

When I was a teenager, our youth group used to go to the Montreat Youth Conference. It was always an incredible experience. We gathered in a big auditorium for worship, and we bonded with new people in our small groups. And every night we would get together with our own group for something called Back Home group. That was always the most powerful experience of the conference. We would talk about our experiences and our faith in ways that we couldn’t at home. We would have incredible spiritual awakenings. Our lives were transformed in Back Home group.

I remember one year we were in Back Home group talking about what happens when we go home. Anyone who has ever been to one of these things knows what happens. The feelings go away. The memory fades. We go back to school. Our friends we left behind expect us to be the same person we used to be. And hardly anything changes.

One year we were sitting with each other partaking in the annual tradition of saying that it would be different this year. But this time there was a girl who simply told it like it was. She was a pretty girl, and popular. And she said to one of the other girls (who was not so popular), “This week I’ve come to know you so well, and I love you so much. But when we go back to school, I won’t talk to you. I won’t even say hi to you in the halls. I can’t.” You might think she was shallow to say something like that. But really, she was just being honest. But even if we thought this year would be different, every single one of us totally understood what she meant.

At a retreat, you’re apart from the expectations and the pressure of your life. But when you came home, you’re not. Everyone expects you to be a certain way. The social pressure is too much. If she started talking to the wrong people, her friends might cut her off. They would say cruel things about her and anyone who spoke to her. It would be social suicide. Maybe you think it’s silly, but in high school that’s your whole life. Or maybe you know too well what being seen with the wrong people can do to your reputation. She couldn’t risk losing that because of a week of summer camp. And I don’t blame her.

And I don’t blame the rich young ruler either, to be honest. He makes the same decision that I have made many a time. I think about what I would have to give up in order to do the right thing, and I’m sad. Because I know myself. And I know I won’t. Whether it’s making myself look foolish for another, or giving up my comforts so that others might be included, I catch myself choosing like the rich young man more often than I’d like to admit.

But take a look at what the jailer does for Paul and Silas. At that very hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds. An hour ago he was ready to kill himself for fear of what they would do if the prisoners escaped on his watch. Now he was taking them to his home. Can you imagine if a jailer did that now? Brought a prisoner to his home, gave him a bath, made dinner? That jailer’s life would be over. 

The moment of belief turns into action. He heard Paul and Silas tell the story of Jesus. Maybe they even told the story of how Jesus washed the disciples feet, and said that “I, your Lord and Teacher, have just washed your feet. You, then, should wash one another’s feet.” And not an hour after he first believes, the jailer is washing their feet. He is an example of true repentance. True repentance begins in our heart, but it ends with our hands.

A young woman went home to visit her parents at their ranch and noticed they had some new neighbors. Making conversation with her mother on the front porch, she asked, “What are they like?”

“I haven’t met them yet,” her mother said. This surprised the daughter. Her mother had always been a social butterfly, and never before had someone new come to town without a plate of Jello or a loaf of her famous cranberry walnut banana bread. “I’m a little uncomfortable. It may take me a day or two to work up the nerve.”

“What makes you uncomfortable, Mama?”

“He is black… I know… it’s hard. I know it’s silly, but he makes me nervous, and uncomfortable. I grew up in a world where this didn’t happen. I’ve been trying to change the way I feel for 60 years. I finally realized I can only change the way I think and act.”

“But you never expressed any of this, the whole time I was raised,” said the daughter.

“I didn’t want to teach you wrong.” she whispered.

Later that day, she did work up the nerve, and brought over a loaf of bread that helped strike up a great friendship. And years later, when the daughter was sitting at her mother’s bedside in a hospital in the city, it was those friends who fed the animals and looked after the ranch.

Repentance is a process. It moves from a conviction in our heart to the movement of our feet. When we repent we do so in the hope that God has mercy, and in the hope that we can do better. We turn ourselves to God, because good things happen to people who turn to God. But in order for it to be effective, we must turn our hand to the plow as well. Make right the wrongs we have committed. Make amends for the wrongs we can’t right. Change the behaviors that led us wrong. It is hard. It is scary. It can be painful. But it is not repentance if we do not. It is something else, something lesser, a meaningless pleasantry, an empty offer. Love takes work, not just words.

But the work of repentance has rewards. The rewards are found in the knowledge that through repentance we are more whole people. They are known in repaired relationships, new friends, the profound experience of being forgiven. The work of repentance begins with God at work in our hearts, showing us what is good and right and perfect, but the work is not done until the rest of our selves is involved too.

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Bless Your Heart

Sermon from March 1, 2015. Text for this Sunday’s sermon is Luke 18:9-14.

Bless Your Heart

            I’m sure many of you are familiar with the phrase, “Bless your heart,” as a way to soften a harsh statement. “Bless his heart, but he couldn’t drive his way out of a paper bag,” you might hear someone say. It’s an easy way to make an insult sound like something other than an insult.

Now as Southerners, politeness is more than just a virtue, it’s a necessity. And out of necessity, we have developed all sorts of other phrases to disguise what we really mean. For example, Southerners have such a treasure trove of ways to apologize without ever saying we are sorry, you could get a Senator to take notes.

There’s the classic “mistakes were made” apology. “I’m so sorry that happened” How did it happen? Who knows how that mailbox got run over, or how I got that scratch on my bumper? We’re both upset. And I’m sorry it happened.”

Or you can apologize for someone’s feelings, but not your actions. “I’m so sorry you feel that way.” I’m not sorry about anything I’ve done. But I’m sorry you feel that way.

Or there’s the pre-emptive apology. “I’m sorry for what I’m about to do” If you’re apologizing for something and then going ahead and doing it anyway, then you surely aren’t sorry enough.

If you’re a skilled Southern locutioner you might could do all of them at once. “I’m sorry if anyone gets upset by what I’m about to say, but those cupcakes are gone and we’re all just going to have to deal with it, regardless of how many crumbs there are on my sweater.”

Now like most Southernisms, these phrases have a time and a place when they are appropriate to smooth things over. I like to say that apologies and Thank You notes are the grease that keeps the wheels of society moving. But we’re talking about repentance for these first few weeks of Lent. And sincere confession is the first step to full repentance. See this type of insincere confession, the non-apology apology, gets nowhere with God.

In our Gospel story for today, Jesus tells a parable about a tax-collector and a Pharisee. The Pharisee goes to the temple to pray, and prays off by himself. “Thank you, God,” he says, “for making me more righteous than everyone else. Thank you that I am not like that tax-collector over there, and I am good and righteous and blessed.” The tax-collector on the other hand, doesn’t think of the Pharisee, because he is too focused on his own sinfulness. He said, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And Jesus says he was in the right with God, even though he was a sinner, because he was the one who was earnestly reckoning with his actions before God.

The parable is about how we should stand before God. Be like the tax-collector, Jesus says, not in the way he sins, but in the way he repents. Because honest self-reflection is a fundamental part of meaningful repentance.

The book of Proverbs tells us that “No one who conceals transgressions will prosper, but one who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” I talked last week about how repentance is an act of hope, when we confess we express our hope of redemption and mercy. But if we hide our sins, what can we hope for? Maybe you’ve heard about the man who went to confession and told the priest he stole a rope. What he didn’t mention was that there was a horse at the end of that rope. Can he go about his day with a clean conscience? Or is he still burdened with the same guilt he came in with? God wants a sincere and contrite heart because God wants to heal us. When we hide our sins or gloss over our flaws, we prevent healing from taking place.

When we aren’t fully honest with God about our flaws, confession and repentance turn into meaningless rituals that either bore us or do nothing. But when we confess our sins sincerely, we become better Christians. Paul tells us to examine ourselves to see whether we’re living in the faith. In other words we should be checking to see if our behavior is consistent with the Word of God. If you’re familiar with Twelve-Step programs, you’ll know that the first step in many if not all of them is to acknowledge that you have a problem. Because if you don’t acknowledge a problem how do you solve it? So it is with our own sins. If we’re going to rectify them, we have to admit that they exist. Honest self-evaluation is the key to reckoning with ourselves in a way that helps us to be better.

Now this isn’t just limited to individuals but institutions as well. One of the most difficult things for churches to do is to have real and honest assessments about what is and is not working. But it is something that most major companies have learned to do well. When a project is concluded, or at an assigned time for a long-term project, the principles get together and talk about what was successful, what was not, and what to do going forward. The military term is debriefing. When we do it well, we find ourselves getting more and more effective as we get rid of bad habits and encourage good practices.

Confession is an individual act of debriefing. It allows us to begin the process of rooting out the problems in our lives. It allows us to take responsibility for our actions. It encourages us to take responsibility for stopping the actions we don’t want.

If we’re serious about being better people, we have to acknowledge what we’ve done wrong. It’s why we confess, it’s why we apologize, it’s why we study history. So that we don’t keep on making the same mistakes. If we hide from our past we will be condemned to repeat it. Honest confession gives us the humility we need to strive to make our lives and our world a better place.

There is also something else that honest confession can do. When we are honest about our own flaws, it makes it much more difficult to judge the flaws of others. When we are honest about our need for forgiveness, it makes it much easier for us to forgive and overlook the flaws of others. Sincere confession makes us more generous and kind with the people we know and love.

There’s a story that comes from the tradition of the desert fathers, old monks in early Christianity. One of the brothers had committed a fault and was called before the council. They asked Abba Moses to come to the council, but he did not come. So they sent someone to get him. As he left for the council, Abba Moses a big jug with a leak, filled it full of water, and started carrying it. When the council saw him coming with this big jug of water dripping everywhere, they asked him what it was. He said, “My sins run out behind me and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the error of another?” When the other brothers heard what Abba Moses said, they cancelled the council and forgave the brother.[1]

Abba Moses had it right. God’s mercy is poured out for each of us. When we confess sincerely and honestly, God has promised to erase our transgressions. God will wipe our slate clean, and remember our sin no ore. If we can believe it for ourselves, we can believe it for others. If we can believe it for others, we must believe it for ourselves. And if we can do it, we are invited to become not just better people but new people, freed from the chains of our own making rejoicing in the grace and mercy of the Lord.

[1] Shoemaker, Stephen. “Sheep and Shepherds” Living by the Word. Christian Century 117 no 20, Jl 5-12 2000. p. 714

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