Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sermon: Be Awake

Grace Presbyterian Church
November 27, 2016, Advent 1A
Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44

Be Awake

It happened Friday, late morning. I am not a Black Friday shopper, and in fact I slept in while others across the country were fanning out to retail stores to appease the gods of commerce in the guise of “getting ready for Christmas.”
But I did want something to eat.
So, I was off to a favorite eating establishment for a very early non-turkey lunch, whilst also juggling both sermon prep and Sunday-school prep in my mind. It may sound odd, but lunchtime can be some of the most effective sermon-prep time I have. I don’t understand it, but I’m happy to take advantage of it.
So there I was, order placed, settling in at a table with my very large tumbler of sweet tea (peach-flavored, in this case), when it happened. “Holiday music” started attacking my brain.
I think Mel Tormé was in there, with the chestnuts roasting on an open fire. I remember both “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” being part of the assault. It was relentless. Horrifying, even. And my brain was indeed withering under the assault. I enjoyed my lunch, but no real progress happened on the sermon that was about forty-eight hours from delivery at that point.
It is by now old hat to complain about how soon the barrage of worldly trappings that gets called “Christmas season” kicks in. There were radio stations playing Christmas music 24/7 even before Halloween, for goodness’ sake.
It’s pretty easy to get lulled to sleep by the ongoing headlong rush of “tidings of comfort and joy,” to be anaesthetized by the omnipresent greenery and bell-ringers at every retail entrance and lush soundtrack of crooned carols. If you’re fortunate enough to escape it before Thanksgiving, it only escalates beyond imagination the day after.
Today’s readings from Isaiah and Matthew are out to deliver a world-altering one-two punch to such complacency and numbness.
It’s not hard to see in Matthew’s account of one of Jesus’s late teachings. This particular scripture has a long history of being “fear fodder” – the kind of passage preachers turn to when they want to strike some fear into their congregation. It’s the kind of passage that gets turned into books about the “rapture” and how badly tribulation goes for the “left behind” while the “saved” presumably look on smugly and safely from heaven.
Matthew would be thoroughly perturbed at the use of his gospel in this way. For Matthew, the immediate problem in the community to which he wrote was quite the opposite; writing as he was at a time when the followers of Christ had been scattered around the Mediterranean and the eyewitnesses to the life and teaching of Christ were dying off, Matthew’s community was beginning to despair of any reunion with Christ at all. To this end Matthew warns his readers not to presume that all is lost, but to remember that “about that day no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” If even the Son did not know the time for that gathering up of God’s people, how could we humans claim to know it was all called off?
Of course, that proclamation hasn’t stopped people from calculating, down to the year and month and date, and sometimes even down to the hour or minute or second, when Jesus would return. I guess Jesus must just be dumb in their eyes.
The author and retired Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor puts Matthew’s insistence on the unknowability of that time like this:
He was not concerned with reading signs and keeping timetables, at least partly because he knew how preoccupied people could get with those things. Before long they cared more about their calculations than they did about their neighbors. Once they had figured out who God’s 144,000 elect were, they did not waste any time or courtesy on the damned, except perhaps to remind them just how hot hellfire was going to be. Meanwhile, God’s chosen had plenty else to do: flee the cities, arm themselves against the enemy, purify themselves for their journey to heaven. Once they had gotten themselves all worked up about this, Matthew found it just about impossible to impress them with the fact that there were widows and orphans in the community going hungry because no one was signing up for the soup kitchen, or that there were still some people in jail who needed visiting, as well as some sick people at home who still needed looking after. But what did any of that matter, when the end was right around the corner?[i]

Matthew’s words are not about “skipping to the end of the book” and putting life on cruise control until the “rapture” rolls around; it’s about the utter necessity to keep living the life of a follower of Christ without relenting. You don’t know the day, you don’t know the hour; the only real option is to keep doing Christ’s work in God’s world, no matter how bleak – or even more, because of how bleak the world is looking around us. Cruise control is over; the real work of being a follower of Christ begins now.
The message from Isaiah is not dramatically different. Isaiah’s prophecy in this passage has a clear “not yet” quality to it. You can scan through it quickly and see how much the word “shall” is used to translate Isaiah’s message:
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established…
…all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say…
He shall judge between the nations…
Even the most famous quote from this passage is couched in “shall” language – “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” and “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” – it’s all still an object of future happening. And we can clearly look around and see a distinct lack of such change around us.
But then, notice what follows next – see what verse 5 does to us:
O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.
Not a “shall” in sight.
Imperative – “come.” “Let us walk.” Do this. Do this now. Even Isaiah sees the need to call the people not to get caught up in future dreaming, but to do now what the Lord calls God’s people to do, to “walk in the light of the Lord.”
As is typically the case, the first Sunday of Advent in particular is a two-sided observance. Yes, we begin the period of waiting and marking the days to the first appearance of Christ on earth, the Incarnation event we celebrate on Christmas. But this day also reminds us, a bit stubbornly, that the Incarnation is not the end of the story, and that we are still in Advent, living in an Advent time as we wait that time when Christ shall come and call us unto himself. We still wait, we still prepare, and not unlike Matthew’s readers, sometimes we give up hope.
But our call has not changed. We are still charged to be followers of Christ in a world that does not want us to be followers of Christ, even though the world desperately needs us to be followers of Christ. There are still the poor, the hurting, the ones who live under regular and constant threat of violence, the forgotten, the lost, those who no longer know why they’re here, the ones whom nobody loves. They are still waiting for us to show and live the gospel to them.
If the church’s “New Year’s Day” means anything to us, perhaps it is the kick-in-the-pants we need, to paraphrase A Brief Statement of Faith in our Book of Confessions, to receive courage from the Spirit in a broken and fearful world. In a time of increasingly open racism and misogyny and xenophobia and hatred of every kind, being enacted gloatingly and with pride even by people who call themselves Christians, we are still charged with being bearers of good news, being followers of Christ. Perhaps this beginning of Advent is a wake-up call, or maybe an alarm clock.
So, no more sleeping. No more snooze button. Wake up. Be awake.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Don’t Say When: Expecting the Second Coming,” Christian Century 121:19 (September 21, 2004); accessed online November 26, 2016 at

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#350 Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning
#102 Savior of the Nations, Come
#349 “Sleepers, Wake!” A Voice Astounds Us
#127 Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (Jesus, the Light of the World)

Credit: Maybe it's some kind of agricultural stock option?

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Sermon: The Paradoxical Reign of Christ

Grace Presbyterian Church
November 20, 2016, Reign of Christ C
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

The Paradoxical Reign of Christ

While for most folks the main “holiday” of note this week is the one marked by massive feasts on Thursday and massive shopping bills on Friday, the liturgical calendar does offer up one more small-scale commemoration for today before the turning of a new liturgical year next Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent. Today is the festival day of the church known as Christ the King, or Reign of Christ Sunday.
This is, unlike most of the dates that dot the church calendar, one which is both pretty new and possible to date fairly precisely. It was first declared in 1925. Pius XI, the pope at the time in the Roman Catholic Church, decreed the feast day in reaction to the increasing rise of dictatorships and other governments he saw as inimical to the authority of the church; Protestant church traditions eventually adapted the feast day as well, pointing to the ultimate authority of Christ as against any secular government or other pretender to the throne of the human heart.
I wonder, though, if such an occasion is itself fraught with potential for confusion or distraction, not because of the theological premise behind it – being able to acknowledge the sovereignty of Christ is a good thing for the church – but perhaps because of our own human capacity for misunderstanding and misapprehension of a term like “Christ the King.”
Put another way: do we, in our modern minds and ways of thinking, get the “kingship” of Christ wrong? Do we, because of our modern connotations of the word “king,” turn Christ into something Christ is not?
Let’s face it; we get a particular mental picture in our heads when we hear or say or think the word “king.” Aside from the modern British monarchy – ceremonial but largely without power – our concept of “king” is usually about absolute authority. The king commands; you obey, or else. Though we might not think of them immediately, the most apt synonyms for our image of “king” are words like “tyrant,” or “autocrat,” or maybe “emperor” – words that evoke rulers who wield absolute power, and who punish those who resist it. (To be clear, one does not have to have the title “king” to be such a ruler, or to desire to be such a ruler, as a cursory survey of world leaders, and would-be leaders, makes clear.)
When applied to Christ, some Christians take comfort in such an image. We can slip into the desire for a really Old Testament-style deity who gets into smiting enemies and unleashing judgment on those we don’t like. Christ is a pretty poor fit for that title, though, as the gospels uncomfortably remind us. Much more than smiting our enemies, Christ is apt to point out what might be called the “gospel of Pogo.” Perhaps you might remember the most famous quote from that old comic strip character: “We have met the enemy, and they is us.”
It isn’t just the gospels who undo our image of kings, though. Even the prophet Jeremiah, pronouncer of judgment and woe that he was, doesn’t necessarily look at kings in the way we’d like. You will notice that in today’s reading from Jeremiah, though it really is all about kings, it takes him quite a while to use the actual word “king.” The image he calls up most clearly is instead “shepherd.” You know, as in “The Lord is my shepherd.” Jeremiah’s prophecy isn’t the only one to invoke this image; both Isaiah and Ezekiel also include discourses on the mandate for kings to serve as shepherds to their people.
Of course, it’s not hard to make the connection between Jeremiah’s image of king-as-shepherd and a Messiah who proclaimed “I am the good shepherd” in John’s gospel. What is hard is to make a connection between Jeremiah’s words and any king Israel had known up to his time. Not even the great King David, who had literally been a shepherd in his youth, truly lived up to this mandate. Human kings had not truly filled the role God had meant for kings to fulfill, but this does not stop Jeremiah from pointing forward to a time when God would bring forth “a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and he shall deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
In the reading from the letter to the Christians at Colossae, we get a slightly different image, directly of Christ, one which does point to the all-encompassing authority of Christ (even speaking of God transferring us into “the kingdom of his beloved Son” in verse 13) without quite conforming to our human image of a king. Here, the “reign of Christ” is one that is meant to pull us forward into full maturity in Christ, growing in wisdom and trust as we come under the reign of the Christ who is celebrated in the hymn that begins in verse 15. This is a “king” who is “before all things, and in him all things hold together”; “the head of the body, the church”; the one in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” But all this fulsome praise is not merely for praise’s sake, but to encourage the Colossians to remain steadfast in the gospel that had been proclaimed to them. Christ the King here is both the source of our wisdom and maturity, but also our only hope of attaining it. Again, not terribly characteristic of the human “kings” we recall.
But if any of today’s readings should undo all our human images of how kings work, the portion of Luke’s crucifixion account we heard ought to do it. This is the eye-twister, the one that makes our brains shut down and say “nope nope nope nope nope.”
Crucifixion was no mere means of execution in the Roman Empire. It was execution combined with humiliation. You didn’t just die; you died pathetically. Even your clothing was an object of a dice game. You were a public spectacle. You hung on that cross for all the world to see and be reminded who the real ruler was – the emperor in Rome, not some insignificant desert rabbi.
In this context, the sign placed over Jesus’s cross – “This is the King of the Jews” – was nothing less than a taunt directed towards a broken, humiliated, dying man, and indeed all who had followed him. The mockery of the soldiers pointed towards that humiliation – “you’re a king, huh? So hop on down from that cross and save yourself.” Being mocked by another criminal at the same time just heaped scorn upon scorn.
And yet Jesus’s response, hanging upon that cross? Forgiveness toward those who had done this to him, and redemption to the second criminal, the one who somehow grasped what he was seeing and cried out for mercy to Jesus.
Here is the ultimate rebuke to our very earthly tendencies about kingship and power. In the words of theologian Eberhard Busch, “The majesty of this king is revealed, not when we look up, but when we look down.” This is the kingship that Jesus has taught us, and this, if we are truly devoted to the reign of Christ, is the kingship we celebrate – one of humility, forgiveness, and utter and undying fidelity to Christ and no other. No human claim on our allegiance can ever – ever – come between or contend with our allegiance to Christ, the shepherd king, the humiliated and broken and crucified Messiah.
The Reign of Christ is not about pomp and power; its only glory is in the cross and the empty tomb. Let our human fumbling with words never lead us astray from this incomprehensible, paradoxical truth. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
 #12                        Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise
#109                        Blest Be the God of Israel
#274                        You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd
#273                        He Is King of Kings

Was going to give a break, but in all honesty searching for images for Christ the King Sunday kinda proves the point of the sermon...

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sermon: Living in the Shadow

Grace Presbyterian Church
November 13, 2016
Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35

Living in the Shadow

It is not often that in the process of developing a sermon over the week I come to a point of throwing everything away, including the chosen scripture, and start completely over. In fact, this is the first time I’ve gone and changed the scripture reading altogether, removing what I had chosen before and putting something completely different in its place.
Not that the scheduled scriptures from the lectionary were wrong or bad. In three years I’ll probably come back to them. The passage from Luke is the kind that needs to be explored and explained now and then, as Jesus says things that are hard to understand and rather frightening. The passage from Isaiah is quite beautiful, and offers a vision of God’s ultimate realm that has transcended scripture to become a recognizable image even in popular culture.
But right now, that’s not we need to talk about. Not this week.
We need to talk about right now, in the place and time where we live. And we need to talk about the church and what it is meant to be in such a time.
The two short vignettes from the Acts of the Apostles capture a moment in the history of the early church, a fleeting moment at that, both idyllic and thoroughly unrealistic. The passage from Acts 2 portrays the early community of Christ-followers in the wake of Pentecost as being in seemingly constant fellowship, gathered around the teaching of the apostles, prayer, and fellowship at the table. Deeds of power were being done among them. The world looked on in approval.
And what is briefly mentioned here is amplified in the passage from Acts 4; the believers were together and even selling off possessions to provide for the needs of those with less. This is where these two passages become stuff that some people would like to rip out of the Bible, fearing the horrible dread spectre of “socialism!” You’ll note that Bernie Sanders did not get elected president this week; that spectre is still enough to provoke distrust among interpreters of scripture.
Where this passage is particularly needful in this moment, however, is not just in pictures of socialist utopias or great miracle-working or even sharing food. These two scriptures are significant not only in text but also in context, and we, living in the moment we do now, need to pay close attention to that context.
Recall that the book of Acts begins with Luke’s account of the ascension of Jesus. After a quick conference to choose a replacement for the betrayer Judas Iscariot, the story moves immediately to the day of Pentecost. Thus what we see in Acts 2 is at least portrayed as happening soon after the ascension, which is reckoned to be forty days after the resurrection. After the Acts 2 account, we get from Luke the story of a healing in the Temple, another large sermon by Peter, and their arrest by Temple authorities and appearance before the council.
In short, this happens very early in the life of the church, or more precisely even before the life of the “church” – we are speaking of a small group within the adherents of Judaism practicing their religious life centered around the Temple in Jerusalem. They’re still a long way from being a church of their own, and the coming disputes with the Temple authorities are at this point an intra-religious dispute within the religious establishment in Jerusalem, a disagreement within Judaism.
The idyllic scene portrayed here doesn’t last. Before too long disagreements will break out over the distribution of relief between Jewish and Gentile widows in the community, and before too long (starting around Acts 12) much of the community will be scattered beyond Jerusalem. The demands of such intimate and ever-present community became overwhelming. But the situation in which they exist in these two passages is not dramatically dissimilar to the one in which a church like ours finds itself right now.
We don’t live in an empire. The United States may well be the most powerful nation on earth, but we don’t quite qualify as an empire in the mold of the Roman Empire, or even of the old British Empire of which we were once a part. We do, however, project influence around the globe – not just militarily, but even more so economically and culturally.
At the same time it is unmistakable that we in this country have seen many of its religious leaders (including sons of two of the most famous preachers in US history) accommodate themselves tremendously to the apparatus of empire, in hopes (not unlike the religious leaders of first-century Jerusalem) to maintain their power and influence. Let there be no mistaking this: such preachers have declared by their actions that their allegiance and desire is much more to this flag over here than to this cross behind me. And not unlike those to whom Luke described Jesus as attributing “woes” in last week’s reading of the Beatitudes, they have their reward.
And all the more damning to those religious leaders is that in the days since Tuesday’s election results became clear, this country has experienced numerous outbreaks of racial or ethnic or gender harassment, vandalism, bullying,, intimidation, and threats. Many of those acts have taken place in schools, among our young people. A swastika, or the slogan “Make America White Again,” painted on a wall; flyers under the windshield wipers of cars threatening immigrants if they don’t leave the USA; black students at one school being added to a social media list with the title "Lynching Party" and frankly more than can be enumerated here (I had originally written about two hundred such events, but the number is now quite higher.). And those religious leaders who have adapted themselves to empire haven’t said one word against these attacks. Believe me, I’ve looked. Not one.
For all of the trauma that many have experienced since Election Day, there is one thing that remains true: our call as the church, Christ’s body here on earth, does not change. We are still here to give praise to God; to give witness to the gospel – the actual good news – of Jesus Christ; to minister to “the least of these” in word and spirit; and to act as those who have been forgiven and redeemed by the love of Christ, and to show to the world that love, no matter what race or gender or nationality or orientation or political party or whatever they may be. That is what it means to be a follower of Christ, and followers of Christ are more desperately needed right now than perhaps we have even realized.
The results of an election do not change our call. They may, however, challenge us to wake up to it and to the world’s desperate hurting need for us to live up to it. We may find that our job really is to be a community that is so knit together in the Spirit, like those early Christ-followers of Acts, that the love of God cannot help but be seen and felt by any who come near us, and then to welcome and care for and suffer with those who are in the most desperate need of that love.
Fear is out there. There are millions in this country who now perceive themselves to be in danger in a way most of us don’t ever know. Do we get defensive and draw back? Or do we open the doors, go out and sit with them, and listen? Do we love? If there is any question we need to answer now as a church, that is it. Who do we choose to be? Do we choose to be the body of Christ to them? Do we choose to show the love of Christ?
For the witness of the body of Christ, then and now, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#352 My Lord! What a Morning
#641 When In Our Music God is Glorified
#373 O Day of Peace
#435 There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy

Left for a teacher in Gwinnett County, GA, after election day.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

A Sermon for the Sunday Before Election Day (and Every Other Sunday)

Grace Presbyterian Church
November 6, 2016, All Saints’ C
Luke 6:20-31

A Sermon for the Sunday Before Election Day
(and Every Other Sunday)

November 1 is, in some more liturgical Christian traditions, observed as All Saints’ Day. (Since in most years November 1 does not fall on a Sunday, many churches will observe it the Sunday following, which is today.) The day is one for commemorating those “saints” who have gone before us in the faith and who, in the words of the Book of Common Worship’s liturgy for the Service of Witness to the Resurrection, “have kept the faith, finished the race, and who now rest from their labor,” who “having lived this life in faith, now live eternally with you.”
I do not know that this congregation has made much of All Saints’ Day in the past, but it might be something we find meaningful going forward. Not to put too fine a point on it, but a number of those who have been members here over the decades have joined the Church Triumphant, and others will in the years to come. Just this calendar year we have mourned the passing of Lorena McAlpine, Ron Nunn, Lynette Ramer, Larke Nunn, and just this week Judy Attaway; all of these have played a role of note in the life of Grace Presbyterian Church. It would be a shame if we did not give our respect to those who have done so much in the life of this congregation for fear of being “too Catholic” or of learning something new.
(prayer for the deceased)
But the occasion of All Saints’ Day is not merely for commemoration of those departed saints, but also for learning from them and the example they lived among us. To be clear, this is not to be a lionization or beatification of these very human predecessors in the faith; the liturgy quoted above (which you’ll hear me use on virtually every such occasion) also reminds us that each of these departed members is “a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.” It would be misguided of us to claim a perfection they did not have (a fact which they now know so well); rather we are to learn from their example, faults and all, and be moved by that example to live into all that Christ calls us to be.
What today’s scripture shows us is that “all that Christ calls us to be” is a monumental challenge, one that would (if we took it seriously) require us to reorient our entire life together as the body of Christ. Being a saint is tough.
The first portion of the text is Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. We heard the more familiar version from Matthew in today’s responsive reading for comparison. You probably noticed that Luke tells the story a bit differently; Luke’s “blessings” are a lot more concise, less elaborated, and less watered down – for example, “blessed are you who are poor” in Luke’s gospel, not just the “poor in spirit” that Matthew cites.
Luke’s “blessings” sound familiar if you know Matthew’s “blessings,” but are rather more direct and to the point (blessed are you, not those), perhaps we might say “less spiritualized” – very earthy, very real conditions that Luke records Jesus as describing and calling “blessed,” conditions that challenge our ability to grasp what Jesus is saying. The poor, those who weep, those who are hungry, those who are hated don’t look blessed to us. But they are “blessed” with Christ’s favor, and if we truly want to be followers of Christ, not just nominal “Christians” but real followers of Christ – it is our calling to see them as Jesus sees them.
If Luke’s “blessings” make that difficult, Luke adds a parallel series of “woes” that Matthew, for whatever reason, does not record. These “woes” truly challenge our ability to “see through Jesus’s eyes.”
It simply doesn’t compute for us to think “woe to you who are rich,” particularly since our society is geared to revere and even idolize them. To say “woe” to those who laugh now, or those who are full, or those who are well-liked and respected, just doesn’t make sense. But we miss the point; those who have grasped and shoved and grabbed and held the best the world can give have obtained exactly that; the best that the world can give, which is nothing but the foulest refuse next to the grace of God. Woe indeed to the embracers of foul refuse.
Again, this is not “pie in the sky, by and by” stuff; this is where Jesus calls us here and now, even if that requires complete upheaval of the way we live and relate to others. And there is no part of our lives excepted from this.
As if that weren’t enough, Luke then adds a “greatest hits” list of The Hardest Things Jesus Ever Said: “…love your enemies…”; a version of “turn the other cheek”; “…give to everyone who begs from you…” (I routinely fail this one); “do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Again, not pie-in-the-sky stuff; here and now, this is Jesus’s instruction to us.
Now for those of you wondering where the title of today’s sermon comes in…right about here is the spot. Of course this kind of turned-upside-down life is supposed to affect us when we mark those little circles on those ballots Tuesday. Again, no part of our life is exempt; this really is how Jesus is teaching his disciples to live every part of every day. Our “political life” (so to speak) is equally under the mandate to see as blessed who Jesus sees as blessed; to love our enemies; to do unto others as we would have them do unto you. If we are going to call ourselves followers of Christ, we don’t get to take Election Day off.
At the same time, we don’t get to take any other days off either.
We might just find, if we take Luke’s “blessings and woes” and other recorded instructions seriously, that every day of our week looks different. It might make a difference in our weekends outside of the church, whether they be spent at the stadium or ballpark or golf course or coliseum, and might even upset the way we decide which of those to choose. It might even cause us to have to pull back from how we spend our evenings. It could just possibly mess with how we spend our days at work, or even what work we do. It might just, if we really follow through on it, cause us to have to speak up where we might just be more comfortable staying quiet when injustice is done, when the poor are shafted yet again to make life yet easier for the rich, or what little food the hungry have is yet again taken away. And we just might find ourselves “blessed” in ways we might never have imagined, and would frankly rather have done without, if only Jesus hadn’t opened his big mouth and Luke gotten wind of it and written it down. We might even have to rethink how we say “God bless you” to one another, if we know ourselves to be more caught up in the “woes” than the “blessings.”
Blessed are you? Woe unto you? Being a saint has never been easy, but saints have never been more needed, on Election Day and every other day.
For the saints before and among us, and what we might learn from them, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#326 For All the Saints
#550 Give Praise to the Lord (Psalm 149)
#506 Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table!
#729 Lord, I Want to Be a Christian

Credit: Is it the devil in the details, or ... ?

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sermon: How Lovely

Grace Presbyterian Church
October 23, 2016, Pentecost 23C
Psalm 84

How Lovely

I am going to confess something to you. There are times when I get distracted, even to the point of losing my place in the middle of a sermon, if I make the mistake of looking out the windows of this sanctuary during a service.
This distraction can come in several forms. It is on occasion prompted by seeing somebody arriving after the service has started (to which my attitude is “better late than never”). Sometimes a bird or a squirrel might appear outside and catch my eye. Passing traffic can on occasion become a distraction. It hasn’t happened too many times yet, but the arrival of a storm outside can do the trick. Or sometimes these windows are windows to distraction simply because it’s a beautiful day outside.
I think, though, that such distractions might well be possible in virtually any sanctuary that was built and set aside principally for the act of worship. While in this sanctuary it is the openness of these window-walls, in others it is stately architecture or stained glass or the sheer antiquity of the place itself.
And yet these seeming distractions might also be the things that drive us more deeply into worship, if we think about it. The interior and exterior architecture of great ancient cathedrals serves to lift the mind and soul ever upward, straining for even a glimpse of the presence of God, while also amplifying the sound (remember, we’re talking about buildings built before microphones) so that it resounded throughout the space and could be heard by the gathered worshipers. Skilled composers learned to write music that took advantage of such acoustics.
For us, on the other hand, the window-walls bring the world into worship with us, so to speak – from the glory of God’s creation visible around this space to the ongoing suffering of the world, brought into sharp relief when a police car or ambulance passes by with sirens sounding. Those things for which we praise God or lift up prayers of intercession are not far away from us in this setting.
While the theology of the Temple of which the psalmist writes in today’s reading is different from our Protestant theology about church and sanctuary, there are things to which we can relate in this psalm about a pilgrim’s love for that place of sanctuary and worship. On one level Psalm 84 can be read more or less straightforwardly, reflecting the yearning of those Israelites making their regular pilgrimage to Jerusalem from remote parts of the region. While we don’t necessarily experience verse 3 of the psalm in a literal sense, the nearness of creation in our particular setting isn’t far from the psalmist’s sense of all of God’s creation finding a home in the setting of worship.
And that setting of worship, that realization of God’s presence in the place and act of worship, becomes a source of strength that sustains us at other times,  whether the Temple-era pilgrim making the sometimes arduous journey to Jerusalem described in verses 5-7, or us modern Christians just trying to get through another week. We are reminded of the presence of God in this place in order to remember the presence of God with us wherever else we might be in the week to come. The sanctuary is not an idol, or a confined space where God is hidden away from the world, but it is a place where we are refreshed in the worship of God and reminded of the presence of God even as we go out from this place.
And actually, those verses about finding a refuge aren’t that far off, either. Of course we know what goes on in this sanctuary on Sunday mornings, but think about what else happens on this patch of land during the week.
There’s a lot of singing that happens, between a Sunday morning service, our choir’s own rehearsal time on Wednesday nights, and the two community choruses that rehearse in the Fellowship Hall on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Throw in the music that Bill Chestnutt’s square-dance group dances to on Monday nights, the hymn festival that’s going to happen next Sunday afternoon, and special occasions around our major liturgical holidays, and this church looks and sounds pretty musical for its size.
Of course, that’s not all that happens here. Our children are getting an education in scripture and church and being followers of Christ on Sunday mornings, and when we can get enough of y’all adults together we do that too. Sometimes meals are prepared or collected for St. Francis House or Family Promise guests. Sometimes we are having meals together. Some nights a Girl Scout group is meeting, taking part in a program that helps shape and prepare them to be the leaders and citizens of tomorrow, if we’re lucky. And on some nights there are people, members of our community, who are meeting in therapy sessions or AA meetings, fighting some of the hardest and most painful battles any human being ever has to fight, and finding the refuge in our church building to do so.
How lovely indeed is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts.
Of course, every now and then we get reminded that having this distractingly lovely sanctuary and all of the physical property here is hard work and gets expensive.  All of a sudden we’re having hurricanes again in Florida, and this lovely glass around us suddenly becomes something to worry about. Even without a hurricane accidents can happen, as that pane to your right that was broken a few weeks ago reminds us. Air conditioning (a non-negotiable building feature in this part of the world) sometimes fails, or a dying tree has to be removed before it falls on the building, or one of the sinks in the kitchen gets clogged with hair (true story; I wish I was making that one up), and that’s work and expense. Keeping up a church building is hard.
I have a few colleagues in ministry who are in settings where ownership of a physical property is not part of their work. On occasion (like some of those events noted above, or during the session meetings where those events have to be discussed), I envy them. Usually not, though. For one thing, even if its showing its age in some places, this is a good building in an interesting location that might just be a major opportunity for serving and doing Christ’s work in God’s world as Gainesville continues to change and evolve as a city. For another thing, we really wouldn’t be able to do or host a lot of things that we listed just a few moments ago without this place. In a sense, we are ministering through this place, and I at least would hate to lose the capacity to do that.
Next week is our Sunday for making our financial commitments for the support of the church for the forthcoming year. In these stewardship campaigns or pledge drives (I guess that sounds more like NPR or PBS, doesn't it?) or whatever various churches call them, one of the things they tell you is that you’re not supposed to talk about the physical building as a part of your campaign; that somehow people get turned off if you talk about mere buildings and meeting rooms as part of what we support as a church. I guess I used to believe that, but I don’t think that makes sense anymore. This building isn’t an idol any more than ancient Israel’s Temple was meant to be, but it is part of our life as a congregation and gives us opportunities to worship, to gather, to have fellowship, and, yes, to minister that we would not have without it. And if keeping the air conditioning working or fixing broken windows or even unclogging strangely clogged drains is part of what it takes to extend that worship or that ministry that we have in this place and time, then it seems to me to be worth the effort that so many of you put into keeping the place working, and worth our financial efforts to keep the place working too.
No, it isn’t the Temple that so provoked the psalmist to such yearning, but it is a kind of home for us, and a place in which God is present and working in us and through us and sometimes even despite us. It is a providence that does require some work of us. It’s an opportunity that does require some discernment and prayer on our part to understand how best to put to use. And it is a place where we are reminded of the God Who is with us in all places, when we remember to listen. So yes, it’s part of our stewardship of what God has given us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#401 Here In This Place (Gather Us In)
#417 Lord Jesus, Think On Me
#403 Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty
#741 Guide My Feet

Man, look at all those windows -- I don't stand a chance...

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sermon: Written on Our Hearts

Grace Presbyterian Church
October 16, 2016, Pentecost 22C
Jeremiah 31:27-34

Written On Our Hearts

Hope is one of the most elusive things we humans ever try to describe.
The poet Emily Dickinson was rather fond of hope as a theme in her poetry. Perhaps most famously she wrote:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all…

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. also spoke of hope many times, even if the word itself was not always apparent. Particularly striking is the terse sentence “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
This is an important point about hope; it’s not really at its most valuable or important or even noticeable in times of ease and comfort, but stands out in sharpest relief in times of adversity – or, to cite another quote attributed to Dr. King, “Only in the darkness can you see the stars.”
Again, Jeremiah is writing to exiles in today’s reading, those who were carried away to Babylon before the final destruction of Jerusalem. You will remember in last week’s reading Jeremiah gave the exiles the surprising and counter-intuitive counsel of God to “build houses,” “plant gardens,” and “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you.”
The problem was, that Jeremiah wasn’t the only prophet delivering messages to the exiles. Furthermore, some of those other prophets were giving messages that were directly contrary to the word God gave to Jeremiah.
Jeremiah had already come into conflict with one such prophet, a man named Hananiah. You can read in chapter 28 of this book how Hananiah directly challenged Jeremiah in the Temple, prophesying that the exile would be broken within two years. Hananiah not only ended up being proved wrong (the exile ended up lasting seventy years), but also ended up dead for his intransigence.
Nonetheless, there were still plenty of prophets about who sought to tell the exiles what they wanted to hear. Hananiah’s two-year exile story refused to die with him. As a result, Jeremiah has to deliver a hard message to those exiles, one which would not be popular and would likely be opposed and rejected by many of them, their ears still attuned to the words of those false prophets and their promises of a quick fix, overthrowing the hated Babylonian rulers and restoring the now-broken kingdoms of Israel and Judah to the peace and safety the exiles remembered (in spite of all evidence to the contrary).
Amidst what looks like bad news, though, Jeremiah is in fact preaching a word of hope, to those whose perceptions have not been so distorted by years of idolatry in Israel and Judah or by the words of those false prophets. It wasn’t an instant-gratification kind of hope, not by a long shot. Indeed, many of those who were taken into exile would not live to see Israel and Judah’s return from exile in the seventy years Jeremiah proclaimed. All of that building houses and planting gardens no doubt seemed a bitter pill to swallow for those who knew their days would end in this foreign land, even if they took to heart God’s instruction through Jeremiah.
But the scripture we read for today stretches the idea of long-term hope to an extreme. Through Jeremiah’s words, God is preparing the people of the covenant for something much farther into the future, even in the midst of their current struggles.
You might have noticed, if you were reading this scripture in your pew Bibles, that the layout of this text as it has been edited for this publication gives away something about it, something that is different. It is set apart from the surrounding text by being rendered as ordinary prose, rather than as more lofty-sounding poetry. We’re being tipped off that the tone is changing here—while much of Jeremiah’s text has poetic quality and content to it, this bit of instruction is blunt and direct. It’s also set off by that repeated introductory phrase “The days are surely coming, says the Lord…”. If nothing else we are being told to pay attention, even if our minds have wandered somehow at this point. This is a Thing That Will Happen; listen up.
The first portion of this scripture seems odd, unless we consider that Jeremiah’s words are overturning a long-held belief in Temple-era Judaism about how sin rippled out from those who committed it, to the point that later generations would “be punished” or suffer for the sins of their ancestors. No longer, says Jeremiah; your sin is your own responsibility, and you alone will bear the consequences.
It is the second half of this passage, though (introduced by another “the days are surely coming…”), that signals something quite new to Jeremiah’s hearers.
I wonder how many of you have seen a painting, or probably a reproduction of that painting, which depicts a very pale, long-haired Jesus standing at a door and knocking. Clearly the painting plays off the verse from the book of Revelation:

Behold, I stand at the door, and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

It’s pretty familiar to us, but would have sounded quite alien to Jeremiah’s hearers or readers. Images of God coming into an individual’s heart, while common from that Revelation verse and numerous gospel hymns, would not have made sense at all in Temple-era Jerusalem. “God’s people” was a communal concept, not an individual one.
Furthermore, if we read Jeremiah’s proclamation correctly (particularly around verse 33), that Revelation passage doesn’t really capture what Jeremiah is telling his listeners or readers either. God’s instruction through Jeremiah speaks of God’s law as being written on “their hearts.” Not “your heart” or “his heart” or “her heart”; their hearts. While there is more of an individual dimension than perhaps the covenant people might have ever experienced before, it is still the community, the covenant people together, for whom this covenant is written. It happens to God’s people together. It happens in the community. And it happens entirely at God’s doing.
We modern Christians tend to get hung up pretty often on the individual nature of faith (rendering Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior, for example) and forget that where that faith is forged is here, in the community, in the people of God, in the body of Christ.
Of course, if we’re honest, we just might have to admit that Jeremiah’s prophecy seems to be yet forthcoming. We don’t always act or talk or live like people with God’s law written on our hearts. We are still easily seduced by the false prophets of our day, whether they be the false prophets who promise you that “you can lose five pounds a week with no dieting and with no exercise!” or the false prophets (frequently religious leaders these days) who push all our buttons by telling you it’s somebody else’s fault that your life isn’t exactly the way you want it, and promise to fix it for you by punishing those people.
The world out there can hardly be blamed for being uninterested in the church when the church seems more venomous and hateful than just about any other part of society. Really, who needs that? If all the church is going to do is make people more hateful and even violent, it’s no wonder nobody wants in.
We have a lot to do, friends. We in the church, the big church, have really given very little evidence that God’s law is written on our hearts, or that it’s a good thing if it is. But think about it; think about what that would mean. Jeremiah’s readers would not be thinking of God writing on our hearts with a really nice pen-and-paper set with elegant penmanship. Remember how they knew the law to have been written first; carved into stone tablets, written by no less than the finger of God. Not an easy thing, not something that could be washed away. Not like writing a note to yourself on your palm because you don’t have a piece of paper; more like being tattooed, or maybe even being branded. Being marked by God in such a way that it can’t be washed away or rubbed off. Being marked indelibly, permanently. Possibly even painfully – tattoos hurt, I’m told, and I can only imagine the pain involved in being branded.
To be marked or branded in such a way is to be so in thrall to God that those false prophets all around us can’t sway us. To be marked that way is to be unmistakably in service to no one or no thing that is not God, no matter how much it wants you to think it is God. It is to be so unswerving in our following God in Christ that the world out there would just have to stop and look, desperate to know more.
Yeah, there’s a long way to go. But this is our hope and God’s promise to us. We might want to examine ourselves in light of this hope, just in case there’s a world out there watching. Because there is.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

 Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#645            Sing Praise to God, Who Reigns Above
#45              I to the Hills Will Lift My Eyes
#53              O God Who Gives Us Life
#833            O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Sermon: Seek the Welfare of THIS City

Grace Presbyterian Church
October 9, 2016, Pentecost 21C
Jeremiah 29:1-7

Seek the Welfare of THIS City

I’m going to tell you all a little secret. I don’t want you to take this wrong, seeing that I’ve been here in Gainesville a little less than two years at this point. Actually I don’t feel that bad about saying it, really, because I know some of y’all have a similar experience to which you might be able to relate.
I miss Lawrence.
Mass Street (short for Massachusetts). Man, I loved Mass Street.

No, Lawrence is not a person (I'm not talking about missing Lawrence Welk). Lawrence is a place, the city in Kansas in which Julia and I lived while I was teaching at the University of Kansas. It’s a quintessentially cool college town. It has an amazing variety of restaurants for a city its size, representing a wealth of different cuisines. It was beautiful in the fall. (I miss fall, too.) I was working in one of the best public-university schools of music in the country, with great colleagues and outstanding students. The cost of living was pretty reasonable. We had a good church.
...ah, the ol' workplace...

I should hope you understand that is not meant as an insult to Gainesville to say that I miss Lawrence. (I even got it in writing. See? hold up shirt)
...and yes, I did hold up a shirt pretty much exactly like this.

But truthfully, I also miss Richmond. There are things I miss about West Palm Beach as well, and I even miss Tallahassee. (Now that’s probably the one to get Gainesville folk on edge, I guess.)
In short, I am as prone to nostalgia as anybody. And I know many of you are too – I’ve overheard some of y’all talking about the things you used to be able to do in places where you lived before, and even in the churches you used to attend when you lived in those places in the past. And you know what? At root there’s nothing wrong with that.
In our cases, for the most part, our leaving those places was voluntary; you weren’t rounded up and hauled away from your old hometown and deposited in the enemy capital of Gainesville, I’m guessing. In other words, your nostalgia is not like that of the people of Israel and Judah who had been carried away to Babylon, the ones to whom Jeremiah writes in today’s reading from that book.
This reading falls somewhat in the middle of the readings we’ve done so far; the exiles to whom Jeremiah writes here are the “first wave,” taken some years before the final conquest and destruction of Jerusalem. The king here mentioned as taken, Jeconiah, was the next to last king of Judah, predecessor to the short-termed King Zedekiah mentioned in the sermon two weeks ago. Jeremiah is still in Jerusalem, but a large number of Jerusalem’s people have been taken captive and held in Babylon, and to those exiles Jeremiah is writing a letter, a prophetic letter at that.
The “nostalgia” felt by these exiles is of a different quality than what I was acknowledging earlier; after all, I could pull up and move back to Lawrence if I really wanted to (although I might be doing so without my very happy Florida-native wife). These exiles can’t do that. They are in every significant way being held prisoner, even if they aren’t being held in a prison.
You hear some of this anguish and frustration in Psalm 137, some of which might sound familiar:
By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

To be honest, the tone turns a lot darker after that, particularly by the time you get to verse 9 of that chapter. But here the sadness, the despair, the lament of the exiles is expressed in both beautiful poetry and great emotional depth.
Now, we know Jeremiah is capable of lament, and capable of pronouncing harsh judgment. But that’s not what happens here.
Instead, Jeremiah (relaying the word of the Lord) tells them to build houses.
Build houses and live in them,” he says. “Plant gardens,” he says, and eat what grows in them. Let your sons and daughters get married—encourage them to do so. Live there. Be there.
Now a few verses down, starting in verse 10, Jeremiah relays God’s promise that God’s covenant children would indeed return to Jerusalem, which indeed does happen. But in the meantime, the Lord is quite specific: live where you are.
And even more, in verse 7:

…seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Your well-being is tied up in the well-being of the city where you live, says the Lord. Pray for it, the Lord says through Jeremiah. Seek what is good for this city – THIS city, the city where you are.
Notice what God doesn’t say. There’s nothing about overthrowing it – a rebellion would probably be little more than a good way to die, but God doesn’t order that. No being separate or withdrawing. Live there. No trying to turn Babylon into some clone of good ol’ Jerusalem. But also no “giving in” – don’t fall for the idols of that city, the way you fell for foreign idols even in Jerusalem. Live there. Maybe even pick up those harps and sing again.
Now it might seem less than obvious how this applies to us. As noted before, we aren’t exiles; we don’t have to live here. We can move. We can leave Gainesville.
But think about that nostalgia we were talking about earlier, back at the beginning of this sermon. That was mostly about individual nostalgia, me remembering living in Lawrence or Richmond or wherever, or you living where you might have lived before you came to Gainesville.
But nostalgia can happen communally as well, and sometimes that kind of nostalgia can be a problem. Churches are particularly prone to this, I fear. I’m pretty sure you know where I’m going with this; we pine for a time when the church was full – not just this church but all the churches were full-up every Sunday and maybe even twice on Sunday. I have no idea if that’s how it was here, but I’m going to guess that’s how we remember it. We remember how you couldn’t really get anywhere in this town if you didn’t belong to the right church, for that matter.
We look around and the city is not what we remember. We remember when we knew everybody who owned the restaurants or shops or businesses or manufacturing or anything of importance in the city. It was comfortable, and we liked it. It’s not comfortable now, and we don’t like it.
That kind of nostalgia can become its own form of exile. It’s not a familiar place anymore, and we don’t understand why there are Jamaican restaurants or Israeli restaurants in town, with food that’s too spicy. We don’t understand how the university got so unbelievably big and takes up so much space in town and creates so much traffic.
We also don’t remember that the simpler time for which we might get caught pining was Hell for some of the folks who lived here then. Hell for those who weren’t the right color, or the right religion, or the right gender or the right sexual orientation or the right income level or even just from the right family. One person’s paradise is too often another’s torture chamber, and regrettably that hasn’t changed as much as we would wish.
But it was comfortable for us, and we liked it, and we don’t recognize the city around us now and we pull back and take ourselves into exile. And we might just be guilty of tolerating or even encouraging all kinds of vileness and hatefulness and unchristlikeness, as long as it’s directed at what we’re uncomfortable with. And through Jeremiah, God tells us to STOP IT.
Seek the welfare of this city – THIS city. Not the one we nostalgically conjure up in our minds, but this city, the one we live in now, with all of the diversity it entails. Six thousand – six THOUSAND international students just through the university, plus I don’t know how many faculty. People who profess religions we’ve never heard of before, or none at all, and don’t feel particularly conflicted about it, and might even run for office. People who at this point don’t even know we exist.
And God is just as surely telling us that our well-being is bound up in this city just as much as the well-being of the Jerusalem exiles is bound up in the well-being of Babylon, as horrifying as that must have sounded to them.
Part of what we are doing in the various missions and outreaches we support as a church in this community is just exactly this – looking after, as much as lies within us, the welfare of Gainesville or Alachua County. Only when things are better for those in Gainesville or Alachua County is our lot going to be better, God says.
Build houses, plant your gardens and eat what grows in them, and seek the well-being of this city of Gainesville. Our call is to find out what that means. But that’s another sermon.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#49            The God of Abraham Praise
#54            Make a Joyful Noise to God
#351          All Who Love and Serve Your City
#432          How Clear is Our Vocation, Lord

THIS city...

THIS city...

THIS city...

...and (ugh) even *this* city.