Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Snowy Sunday

The snow this Sunday morning is beautiful. So, what happens at church this morning?

We will follow the plans for this Sunday after Christmas that we already have. There will be only one service.

8:30 am - No service.
9:30 am - Sunday School gathering for adults in Parish Hall.
Youth join the adults for this gathering time.
Children follow a one-room schoolhouse approach.
11:00 am- Worship in the Nave.

We would love to see you at church this morning, but be safe.
If you need to stay at home, join us for Rejoice! at 8:30 am on WVLT-TV.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tuesday, December 14 - Snow Report

As you know, the policy of the church is to cancel meetings and classes on days that Knox County Schools are closed due to weather. As such, all meetings and activities are canceled today. If you have an appointment with anyone at the church today, please check with that person before coming to the church today.

December 12, 2010 -Child of the Holy Spirit

Child of the Holy Spirit
        Matt 1.18-25, esp. v. 20: "Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,
        for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.

    There is holy mystery in the Christmas story. We rightly savor it at this season. One of the mysteries of Christmas is how Jesus came to be born.
    Too often this subject zeroes in on the question: “Do you believe in the virgin birth?” Some of us will immediately answer, “Oh, yes!” Others will answer just as quickly, “Not at all.” Most folks in the middle hesitate a moment. Is this a matter of curiosity to explore OR a position we should be prepared to defend? I have found myself in both situations.
    I want to think aloud with you today about how Jesus came to be conceived and then born. I want to think with you out loud about what it means that Jesus was born. And I especially want to think about the movement of God in the birth of the Christ Child.

I. So, what does it mean to Matthew when he writes:
    "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,
        for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.".

Across the years of Christian history, the Church has read this passage and determined that this means that Jesus was born of a virgin mother named Mary.

    The “Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church” which is one of the foundation documents of our United Methodist Church says this more fully, so I will share this with you:

    Article-II: Jesus Christ: We believe in Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man, in whom the divine and human natures are perfectly and inseparably united. He is the eternal Word made flesh, the only begotten Son of the Father, born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. As ministering Servant he lived, suffered and died on the cross. He was buried, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven to be with the Father, from whence he shall return. He is the eternal Savior and Mediator, who intercedes for us, and by him all men will be judged (1).

This statement of doctrine says more than we can find in our short passage from the Christmas story. I include it because our doctrine about Jesus Christ is important. As we are delving into the details of this particular passage, we must not lose sight of the great doctrine of Jesus Christ to which it points. Keeping this in mind, let’s look more closely at this detail in the scripture before us.

    If the full statement of doctrine had not yet been given, which of course it was not when Matthew wrote, what would it mean for Joseph to hear God’s angel say: “For the child conceived in [Mary, your wife,] is from the Holy Spirit”?

    First, let us remember that Christian doctrine springs out of the work of God.
    +God spoke and a world was created;
    +God called and led Israel out of slavery into the Land of Promise.
    +The Lord is my shepherd.
You might say it this way: the subject of every theological claim is “God.” The main focus in understanding Matthew’s statement is on the work of God through the Holy Spirit; Mary, like any one of us is servant and therefore second. We begin with the Holy Spirit at work in the conception of the Christ Child.

    Second, the best place to begin our exploration is the Bible. Are there other occasions and other births where God intervened for the conception and birth of a child? Actually, there are several places where this occurred.
    +Samson was born after his parents encountered God while they were in worship.   
    +Samuel was born to Hannah, who was barren until she poured out her desire for a child to God.
   +Sarah was 90 years old and childless when God visited Abraham, who was 99, and promised them a child. Clearly, she was well beyond her child-bearing years.
        +There is evidence that the popular literature of Jesus’ day told of God’s attention to the conception and birth of Moses.
        +Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, was also beyond her child-bearing years and became pregnant only after her husband Zechariah met God in the Temple.

There are two elements in these stories that we should keep in mind; one they share with the Christmas story; the other they do not.

    1. The element these OT stories of miraculous birth do not share with the Christmas story is that these OT women were married, living with their husbands, and conceived in roughly the usual manner. I say, “roughly the usual manner,” because Sarah at 90 was not expected by anyone to have a child. Special circumstances attended each of these other births. The difference is that Matthew reports when Jesus was conceived, Mary and Joseph were not living together as husband and wife:
    When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child...

As Matthew says of Mary: “She was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” The biological details of how that conception took place by the Holy Spirit are not spelled out any more than they are spelled out in the OT stories of God’s intervention in the conception and birth of other children. While the ancients knew where babies come from, they knew nothing of the microscopic biology of conception. We must be careful lest we read our biological knowledge into the Biblical story. The words I just quoted from Matthew are, in fact, all that he reported about it.

    2. What all of these stories have in common is the *intervention of God*. In every case, including the Christmas story, God intervened for the conception and birth of a child. That intervention varies from situation to situation.
    Still, in every case, God’s intervention through the Holy Spirit promises a remarkable destiny for that child: Samson, Samuel, Isaac, Moses, John the Baptist, and finally Jesus. This will be a child who serves God in ways that bring God’s promises and blessings to humankind in ways not seen before. This is a child of destiny – whose destiny it will be to reveal the power and work of God in human history and human lives.

    This is a destiny so great that Israel was called to come, to see, and to believe as they had never believed before these children of destiny:
        – like the children of Isaac who came to understand themselves as a people of divine promise;
        – like the Hebrew children who followed Moses to the Promised Land,
        – like the kings who were led to build a nation with the guidance of the great prophet Samuel,
        – like the people of Judea who came out to repent at the preaching of John the Baptist.
Every time God intervened to provide an exceptional birth, God called the child which was born to a tremendous destiny and purpose. Each of these children, conceived and born through the intervention of God, brought Israel to a new and richer understanding of God.//

    This is the foundation for our understanding of Jesus’ birth as well. It was through the Holy Spirit that the child Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb. Matthew’s claim is that Jesus’ conception pointed to a distinct life, of course. And that distinction was only made stronger as Jesus
    +began his ministry,
    +taught with power,
    +worked miracles that healed bodies and lives
    +and revealed the presence of God.

That difference was only made stronger as Jesus
    +broke the bread at the Last Supper,
    +as he went to the cross,
    +as he died there for the healing of the world,
    +as he rose again from the dead on Easter.
We know Jesus was not just another prophet-in-Israel by telling the rest-of-the-story by which our hearts burn within us at the telling. Jesus was not just another great leader; Jesus was the living presence of God among us.

III. By telling Joseph that Jesus would be born by the power of the Holy Spirt, God began a new step in His presence and work among humankind. God was telling Joseph and everyone of us who celebrate Christmas, “Behold, I am doing a new thing. Can you see it?
    It is only by faith that we can see, you know. Thus, the story of the birth of the Christ Child is a call to every one of us to believe: Do you believe that God was in Jesus? Do you believe that you must put your faith in Jesus if you would see God? The destiny of all humankind is made clear and set upon a new path by this child born to Mary and to Joseph. To believe is to join Jesus Christ in seeing and working for the vision of God among us.

    Ann Weems caught this call to believe in her poem: “The Cross in the Manger” (2):

If there is no cross in the manger,
there is no Christmas.

If the Babe doesn’t become the Adult,
there is no Bethlehem star.

If there is no commitment in us,
there are no wise men searching.

If we offer no cup of cold water,
there is no gold, no frankincense, no myrrh.

If there is no praising God’s name,
there are no angels singing.

If there is no spirit of alleluia,
there are no shepherds watching.

    If there is no standing up, no speaking out, no risk,
there is no Herod, no flight into Egypt.

If there is no room in our inn,
then “Merry Christmas” mocks the Christ Child,
and the Holy Family is just a holiday card,
and God will loathe our feasts and festivals.

For if there is no reconciliation,
we cannot call Christ “Prince of Peace”.

If there is no goodwill towards others,
    it can all be packed away in boxes for another year.

If there is no forgiveness in us,
there is no cause for celebration.

If we cannot go even now unto Golgotha,
there is no Christmas in us.

If Christmas is not now,
If Christ is not born into the everyday present,
then what is all the noise about?

    Now, we must return to the story of Mary. You see, when the power of Jesus’ birth is in the Holy Spirit, then Mary is allowed to begin this story as an ordinary young woman, called to be a servant of God. As such, she is just as we are: Standing before the greatness and power of God, we are just as surely called to be servants of God.

    We began with the mystery of Christmas. Think about the mysterious possibility that Almighty God, the Creator of the Universe, might enter our lives in such an immanent, intimate way. Think about the mysterious possibility that God might attend and watch with you and me at our most human moments. Think about the evidence in this that God is still moved with love for the world that we call home. If God would call on a young woman named Mary and a husband named Joseph, God might include us in His Christmas as well. Imagine!

1. “Article II–Jesus Christ,” “Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church,” The 2008 Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, para. 103, p. 67.
2. Weems, Ann. “The Cross in the Manger,” Reaching for Rainbows.

Monday, December 6, 2010

December 5, 2010 - Sketchy Women

Sketchy Women
Matthew 1.1-17 - The Genealogy of Jesus

    In the early days of Jesus' ministry and later at the beginning of the church, there were people who wanted to discredit him. People heard the story about his miraculous birth. Those, who did not want to believe in him, seized on his birth as the way to undermine his message and his work. Even back in Biblical times, people knew where babies come from, and those who did not want to believe in his miraculous birth went looking for other explanations. In modern times, the supermarket tabloids are evidence that we enjoy a good sex scandal just as much as our ancestors did.
    Matthew knew about all this whispering. As he wrote his gospel for the Jewish people of Israel, he addressed the whispers about Mary head on. So, starting with chapter 1, verse 1, Matthew uses the genealogy of Jesus to defuse all this talk of a scandalous birth.

    Most family trees focus on the fathers; this one is no exception. But there are mothers included, too. I want you to notice the women who are sprinkled through this list of generations. Five women are included on this list including Mary.
    +Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah;
    +and Mary.
What is interesting about these women is that each one of them is clearly part of the family tree of the Davidic line and each has something questionable about her past. It is as if Matthew is challenging those who would criticize Mary as a mother by pointing to the genealogy of all Israel. “If you want to raise questions about the kind of person who gave birth to Jesus, then you’d better deal with the questions about the rest of your family tree.”

    1. Tamar was married to one of the sons of Judah. When that son died, the next son of Judah was supposed to take her home and give her children in the name of his brother. Thus, she would be provided for and that brother would have heirs. Well, the first brother wouldn’t do what he was supposed to do. Then, her father-in-law, Judah kept her away from his third son. Tamar was a good woman, a young widow, and she was about to become an outcast simply because her brothers-in-law wouldn’t do the right thing. So, taking matters into her own hands, she dressed as a prostitute and went to sit beside the road where her father-in-law, Judah, was sure to travel. When he came that way, he offered her money for sex. Basically, he was willing to have sex with a prostitute but not willing for his sons to do the right thing for his daughter-in-law. Well, when word got around that Tamar was pregnant, they hauled her into court on the way to a stoning. But, she brought the cord, the staff and the ring that Judah had left behind the night he was with her. Everyone expected to see her condemned. But, when she arrived she said, “The father of my child is the owner of this ring, this staff, and this cord.” And as soon as he saw them, Judah recognized them as his. He had to admit that he had done her wrong, so then he took her home to give her children in the name of his son. Tamar is one of the heroes of Israel because she took a risk to honor her husband with children, and one of her children became an ancestor of King David and thus an ancestor of Jesus.

    2. Rahab began as a prostitute. When Israel came into conquer the Promised Land, it was Rahab the prostitute who welcomed the scouting party that went to figure out how to invade the land. Now, ordinarily “good, upstanding, church people” aren’t supposed to celebrate prostitutes. The Bible is very direct about this. But, Rahab the Prostitute helped Israel do what God had sent them to do – to take the Land of Promise for their very own. Thus, Rahab is one of the heroes of Israel because she believed and risked her life for God’s purposes and God’s people. Later, one of her children became an ancestor of King David and thus an ancestor of Jesus.

    3. Ruth was a foreigner in Israel, a nation that was very suspicious of foreigners. She first married a young man from Israel. When he died, she went back to Israel to seek the same tradition that Tamar counted on – that one of her husband’s relatives would give her children so that her deceased husband could have heirs. Sadly, everyone knew the tradition about taking care of the widows who have no children, but it was widely ignored. In Ruth’s case, the connection between her deceased husband and any man she met in Israel was going to be very weak.
    Ruth is honored because this foreign widow, with little claim on Israel, held onto Israel’s tradition. She acted honorably and decisively to keep Israel’s tradition and to honor her husband. Thus, Ruth is one of the heroes of Israel because she took a risk in trusting God’s purposes and God’s people, and one of her children became an ancestor of King David and thus an ancestor of Jesus.

    4. The fourth woman in the genealogy is Bathsheba. When Israel was at war, David was at home in the palace. One day, he went up on the roof of the palace. While he was there, he looked out and saw a woman doing the ritual bath of women. He sent for her (he was the king, after all), knowing that she was married to one of his own soldiers, one who was fighting for him and for Israel at that very moment. When Bathsheba became pregnant, David tried to cover it up. He brought Uriah home from the front, hoping he would go home to stay with his wife, but Uriah was too honorable to rest while his comrades were in the heat of battle. So, David sent him back to the battle carrying the message to put Uriah at the front of the battle where he would be killed. Uriah’s death happened as David asked, and he took Bathsheba into the palace as his wife. It was a great cover up until Nathan the Prophet confronted him one day. Today, we would call David’s actions “sexual abuse by a person of greater power and authority.” Bathsheba was powerless to refuse the king, but she was faithful in doing what was required of her and in raising her child. Thus, Bathsheba is one of the heroes of Israel because she took a risk to work for God’s purposes and God’s people. One of her children was the son of King David and thus an ancestor of Jesus.

    Now, let’s look back over this list of women before we move onto Mary. According to tradition, Matthew’s audience would have seen these four as women of *doubtful character*. We have been taught to expect the same. But, as we have looked closer today, each of these women showed herself to be the hero and the person of greater character than the man or the society of men who finally fathered their children.

    5. Now, Matthew watches as we run our fingers down the list of names in the genealogy. He looks at us closely as we pause at the name “Mary.” He knows that we are expected to find fault with her, to whisper about her doubtful character. We are expected to search for something in her that would diminish the character of her son, Jesus.
    By outlining these four women before her, Matthew has prepared us for Mary. The world whispered to us as we took up the story that she, like so many others, is of doubtful character. But, Matthew puts the list in front of us and calls us closer to examine their stories and their character. What we find is that on closer examination each of these doubtful women has proven to be *heroic* in character, risking their honor and dignity to do what was right, risking their honor on the distant promises of God, and, without ever seeing it themselves, trusting God to bring a Messiah to the hurting world.

II. So, what do we learn from the Genealogy?
    A. We learn that God has purposely woven men and women into His purposes. Imagine! God could have cast a miracle: Stop all wars! Clear up all disasters! Show the nations how to live in peace! With a little flash and a lot of thunder, God could have settled the whole problem in a matter of minutes. But God has chosen a different way. God has chosen to write the work of healing through the lives of faithful people. By God’s grace, humanity is chosen as necessary to every aspect of the work of God.

    B. Further, we have learned that God made a *necessary place* in the work of divine grace for these women of doubtful character. They are not just *allowed* or *tacked-on*. The prostitute and the sassy, back-talking daughter-in-law were made *necessary*. The young wife who was claimed as the King’s plaything and watched her husband be killed to cover up the crime was made *necessary*. And Mary, who knew that no one would understand, took the risk that God meant her good when he asked her to bear the Christ Child. All of these are, by God grace, made necessary to God’s act of grace. If they had not taken the risks that put their own reputations on the line, the next generation would not have been born, the Promised Land would not have been settled, and the Savior would not have found a home.

So, hear the Good News.
    A. The grace of God is not reserved for the righteous, the washed, and those who got it right the first time. Let every woman, every man, with a past that you want to keep out of sight hear the news that you, too, may become *necessary* to the healing work of God’s grace. Despite your past (or perhaps because of it), God may use your story as a step along the way to the healing of the nations.

    B. The grace of God is not reserved only for those who have stayed out of the clutches of abusers. People who have been damaged and abused, like some of these women, can find themselves not only healed, but standing at the center of God’s grace.

    C. God is not afraid of our pasts nor our doubtful reputations. In God’s hands, our futures are open and brimming with possibility. [CONCL] On Christmas, God gathers up our broken, damaged lives to weave them into God’s gift of hope. The birth of Christ Child is not just a random act of kindness on the part of *God the Divine Stranger*. The first Christmas was not prepared on some distant planet and only then delivered fully formed to the manger in Bethlehem. In the birth of the Christ Child, God has taken the broken pieces of many lives and placed them one by one until they make the most beautiful work of art. What our ancestors did in desperation, God turned into courage and hope. What our ancestors did in blind trust, God turned into joyous faith. Christmas is all about faith that one day greets God now among us in the birth of Mary’s baby.
    This is the courage and the loving risk-taking that we celebrate at Christmas. God was moving during that time. Christmas is our reminder that God is still moving to heal the earth, the bind up the broken, to bring peace to the people and families and nations.

Monday, November 29, 2010

November 28, 2010- The First Sunday of Advent

Its beginning to look and feel a lot like Christmas. And yet, for some reason, the tradition of the church is to spend the first Sunday of Advent holding in tension the memory of Christ’s birth and the expected second coming of Christ when God’s work will be complete in the world. It’s a strange way to start, but perhaps a healthy dose of both will help all of us to experience the profound story of God’s love.
My hope, is that through my clumsy perspective, Christ will tap on our shoulders and show each one of us at least part of what he meant in the apocalyptic words that Matthew recorded.

"Expecting Again"
Rev. Sarah Varnell

Matthew 24:36-44

To be honest, passages like I just read in Matthew make me nervous as a preacher. And most commentaries dismiss it as “apocalyptic,” with little explanation for fear of slipping into prediction mode. Help a preacher out!

I’ve been unpacking reasons why that may be the case for far as I see it there are some positives about it and some negatives, let’s start with the positives:
(1) in talking about the second coming of Christ, we offer a proclamation of the hope we have that God is not finished with us.
(2) its a reminder that we need to be in a posture of living each day as though it is our last.
(3) the second coming is a sound teaching of the Church, we say in the mystery of faith, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”
The negative aspects for me are,
(1) many preachers and theologians have used this text to scare people into believing for fear of judgment and hell
(2) truth is, though I believe in the second coming, most of what I know is that it is a mystery…no predictions here, and
(3) at first glance, it just doesn’t seem so “Christmas-y.”

Several years ago now, when I was a young sixth grader in my youth group, we went on a trip to a neighboring church for an event called “judgment house.” Being a child that from an early age majored in Sunday School answers, I was curious about judgment house. Some of the older members in our youth group attended the year before, and they were anticipating the outpouring of emotion as they refocused their lives on God. When we arrived they ushered us into a mock-living room. In the living room a parent and a teenager were eating dinner together, mostly fighting. The teen was obviously very rebellious and stormed out of the room against her father’s will. We walked into the second room where the same teen was participating in underage drinking with her friends and succumbing to all kinds of peer pressure, and then she got into a car to go home. The next room, the car was clearly in an accident, and then the next room was the judgment room. The young girl, recently deceased found herself in front of the throne of God, the person that played Jesus said to her, “I’m sorry, but I do not know you,” and with that men dressed in all black with their faces covered came from the shadows and drug her away as she screamed, begging for God’s mercy. As you can imagine, I was a bewildered 6th grader and I was in tears, literally sobbing. Then we moved into the final room-- the decision room--and one woman approached me as she figured my sobs meant that I was “ripe for saving,” and she said, “Would you like to be saved?” I couldn’t get past the scary men dressed in black that drug that girl away, and my head was filled with her screams, so I exclaimed “me??? What about her?? She’s the one that needs to be saved from those bad men!” And the woman instructed me that that was the point of the play, that if we are like that girl God will turn us away. All I could think was, “but I thought God loves everyone, everyone, even her!”

As Andy reminded us last week about Thanksgiving, if we don’t give voice and explanation to what we see God doing in the world, then others will do so on our behalf.
Our society already offers a dialogue for the second coming, articulated in the modern voice of the “end times.” The Left Behind series, and several movies including one of the most recent ones 2012. And, someone is always predicting the “day” convincing people they are the prophetic voice even though Jesus clearly states that NO one knows the day or the hour, not even Jesus himself knows, only God the creator knows the fullness of creation’s story. I can even recall a story about a church near my hometown several years back that the pastor convinced his membership that Jesus was returning, and to give all of their possessions to the church. After he got what he needed, he ran off, nowhere to be found, leaving many good-hearted people with nothing except a bunch of doubt in the hole where faith once was.

Even one of my most beloved modern music prophets, with a John the Baptist exterior and lyrics like honey, Bob Dylan sang in apocalyptic tone, “Ring them bells, ye heathen from the city that dreams, Ring them bells from the sanctuaries cross the valleys and streams, ‘cause they're deep and they're wide and the world's on its side and time is running backwards and so is the bride.” Just last week when we had that big storm I was listening to a local radio station, the DJs, with no religious context, and they commented on how apocalyptic the sky looked as a storm brewed above. Humans are curious, and culture leans toward provoking our fear, anxiety, and need for control.

Ever since my experience with the judgment house, I have been convinced that the way to the gospel is not fear, but that we are ushered into God’s fullness by God’s overwhelming love and convincing grace. In our United Methodist heritage, we affirm the Second Coming of Christ, and God’s saving work in each of our lives through prevenient grace that knocks on the doors of our hearts and our part in receiving the grace through sanctification and justification as we repent of the sin in our lives.
For many of us, this happens most everyday... somewhere along the way we are convinced that we live by the grace of God.

In the passage from Matthew, the people are doing ordinary… everyday things, and we’re told that Christ comes like a thief in the night. So often, death and illness come that way, taking us from health and life…or an accident that changes everything. Most of us know what it is like for life to suddenly change in the blink of an eye.

So, the obvious question is, should we fear Christ the same way we fear a thief breaking in to our warm home?

Let’s consider that the first time Christ came into the world it interrupted creation, and though the ripples extended into all of human history, initially it only changed the life of a young mother and her husband, a motely crew of shepherds, and some wisemen from the east. The only one who worried was a king, who feared that a tiny baby would threaten his kingdom, and he was right… that baby had more power in his little finger than that king even knew was possible.

In this season of Advent, we still come expecting to hear a word from God. We come, like young parents expecting a second or third child, wondering if the spark felt at birth will be the same as it was the first time we heard that God was coming as a baby.

During college, I had the privilege of working at a camp in the summertime, and also for a weekend during Christmas break for the traditional “Christmas Camp.” Christmas Camp is exactly what you would expect it to be- we made all sorts of festive crafts, sang every carol we could play in the key of C on the guitar, told the story of Jesus around a campfire, and lit candles under the stars as we sang Silent Night. The preacher for the weekend spoke mostly about looking for God in unexpected places, that the season of advent is a promise that God is always doing a new thing- no one expected that the Messiah would come as a helpless baby, but that’s exactly what God did. She encouraged the kids, and the counselors for that matter to be on alert for God. One of the kids in my group, Levi, happened to be autistic and had a very big personality and he took this quest for Jesus very seriously. At breakfast one morning, as we sat in the lodge with the mountain fog around us outside the windows, Levi looked up at me with wide eyes and said, “Jeeesus is here.” I laughed to myself, but smiled as I encouraged him to stay on the look out as we watched the sun poke out and melt the fog around us. Later that day as we hiked through the cool forest, we heard the leaves crinkle behind us and he tugged at my arm asking, “Jeeeesus is behind us!” We peered into the brush to find a deer, standing perfectly still. Since we were at camp, it seemed logical that he would find God in the beauty of nature, so we celebrated the deer and went on our way. Later that night as we gathered around the campfire, with the stars shining beautifully above us, and as each of us held our candle to match the starlit sky, Levi’s eyes were as wide as could be, and with the tenderness of a new mother he said, “Jesus is here.”

In every moment of my life, the happy, the sad, and the indifferent, I try to have the hope and the faith of Levi that “Jesus is here,” and the Jesus foretold in scripture is, so good that he does not need our weapons or our wanting… and that when we are judged, we will be judged through the nail-scared hands of Jesus… love that compels, convicts, and has the power to change us…love that bids us come, as advent would suggest, expecting…

My favorite scene from C. S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is when the children learn that Aslan is a lion, which raises concern. The older sister, Susan states that she will be nervous meeting a lion, and Mrs. Beaver responds, "That you will, dear, and no mistake, if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else silly." The younger sister Lucy, looking very worried asked, "Then he isn't safe?" And Mr. Beaver replied, "Safe? Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."

In the Name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The invitation this advent season is to simply be on the lookout-- to expect that God will do something new-- to clean out all the clutter of consumerism and sugar plum fairies long enough to expect that God will reveal fullness of grace and love in your heart, if there’s room.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

November 7, 2010 - All Saints Sunday

Ephesians 1:11-23

Today is All Saints Sunday, the day when the church pauses to recognize that we are surrounded by saints. On this day we read out the names of those who have died in the faith in the certain hope that they are not dead but continue to live in and through us in the power of Christ.

One of the reasons I love All Saints Sunday is that the church is in the business of producing saints. I can almost feel you squirm in your seats when I say that. But it's true.

The church collectively is made up of saints, those ordinary people who have been called by Jesus Christ to live sanctified lives, lives that are so caught up in the plans of God that they are called saints.

The most important thing we do collectively is the week-in, week-out worship of the church gathered. How many troubled souls find life-giving sustenance and nourishment each week in the worship of the church. There are many folk out there who couldn't make it if it were not for what they receive on a Sunday morning.

Those words reminded me, a preacher, of the importance of the work as the church, gathered and scattered. Today I'm thinking that one of the most important things we do here is that ordinary equipment we receive to be saints, to be those whose lives are caught up in God's work in the world - saints.

When we hear the word saint, we’re often too quick to think of Mother Teresa or Saint Francis. But I want us to think today in a more mundane, ordinary sense of saint. In fact, I'm talking about you.

According to a great preacher, a saint is someone whose life manages to be more than a “cranny through which the infinite peeps.” We hold the saint’s life up and through it we get a glimpse of the infinite and the eternal, a sighting of God. The saint is someone who somehow manages to live in two worlds. (1)

And the apostle Paul celebrates those saints! The saint's faith has enabled him or her to release some of the tight grip by which most people hold on to this world and then is paradoxically able to receive this world as a gift. With an eye on the infinite, the saint manages to be thoroughly involved in the finite. The saint manages to chart his or her life by the stars, but walks on thoroughly solid earth.

In my experience, saints are best known through seemingly small, earthly gestures, deeds of love and mercy made all the more holy because they are so earthly. Many of those we will remember today did not set out to be saints, they just were in their many very earthly actions.

Too often saints are depicted as people who are so extraordinary that we could never identify with them. Their commitment to God and virtue is unwavering, their trust in divine providence unshakable, and their unselfish service of others puts everything that we do to shame. Such a depiction is unfortunate, because someone who was not first a genuine human being would probably never grow into the kind of holiness to which we are all called.

What actually makes a saint? Extraordinary feats of courage or self-denial?

No! It is the love that God has bestowed on us that makes us children of God. And as children of God, we are already saints, because divine life flows within us and through us. The differences between individuals have to do with the degree and character of our willingness to cooperate with God’s grace and to be like God.
Most of them are hidden in obscurity, known only to those who were in some way touched by their lives. But these are saints of God nonetheless.

The saints we have known are people who shared their possessions, who grieved over the tragedies of the world, who did not fall into the traps set by power plays, who sought to make the world better, who showed mercy, who lived authentic lives and who did what they could in the name of peace. They lived the beatitudes in their daily lives, even if they had to pay a price for their integrity. We all know such saints.

And if we are honest, we must admit that we too can become saints as they did. When the saints come marching in, we can be in their number. We are already God’s children. With the grace of God, who knows what we might yet become?

Don't you see that makes it all the more amazing that in ordinary places you can still find these practical saints, folk whose faith has enabled them not to be worn down by the cares of life, not to avoid those who are in need, not to steel themselves against the feeling and responding to some of the hurt and the sorrow of others?

On this All Saints' Day, like Paul, I give thanks to God for the saints, all of them, including you. It is no small achievement - whether one is in a hospital ward, or a hardware store, or a high school classroom - to live like a saint. Amid the cares of everyday life, somehow to keep your eyes fixed on the things of God, to reach out in compassion to others, to testify to God's promised kingdom in the middle of our kingdoms and their demands - this is no small spiritual achievement.

I hope that in the church you receive the gifts you need to keep at it. I hope that you receive the encouragement, the equipment, the grace needed to keep on keeping on.

And what about those days when you don’t feel so encouraged? Saints are people who can hold together the glorious promise of our inheritance in heaven which sends the author of Ephesians into ecstasy not on the rich and powerful but on the poor, the hungry and the tearful. And sometimes the saints are themselves the hungry and the tearful.

There has much in the press this year about the fast-tracking of Mother Teresa to sainthood, but the secular press was wrong-footed by the so-called revelations that for most of her life she was serving the poor and giving herself to prayer at the same time that she was doubting God presence and care. That seemed to the world as a negation of her faith and dedication, but the church nodded wisely and knew otherwise. (2)

Indeed our readings today point to the fact that the truth lies elsewhere: they remind us that Christians are called to hold all those truths together, that doubt and despair are not the negation of faith but at times integral components of it. And those we honor today as saints give us examples we can follow precisely because, in many cases, they struggled.

All Saints’ Day is about aspiration: God asks ordinary people do extraordinary things. In everything we play our role as revealers of grace -- singing God's graceful melodies -- by responding to the needs of the world, letting our light shine so that our world may know that God is alive, seeking beauty, healing, and justice in our midst. You can aspire toward holiness; you can be a person of stature, grace, and hospitality; you can share God's healing love and break down barriers of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality throughout the ordinary business of everyday life.

Walking through our beautiful Nave earlier this week, I was reading the names, familiar in the families that are still at Church Street and wondering about their stories. The sun streaming in on the bright fall day reminded me of a story about a man who brought his son to beautiful Duke Chapel on a similar sunny day. The sunshine shown through the numerous stained glass windows. The father said to his little boy, "Those windows show pictures of the saints. Do you know who the saints are?"

The little boy, looking up at the brilliant windows, said, "Yes. The saints are the ones who the sun shines through." He was right. The saints are the ones who the Son shines through. Saints are those who embody the truth of Jesus' promise, "If you abide in me, I will abide in you." They are the ones through whom we see the Son. (3)

For all the saints, who from their labors rest, we give you thanks this day, O God.

For all those dear people who loved us, who told us stories of Jesus, who lived the faith before us and exemplified the path of discipleship, we give thanks.

Remembrance of the saints and their witness reminds us that we are not here by our own efforts. Rather, we are here in your church by their gifts and grace. And the saints remind us too that, "In Christ you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit. This is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory."

Let us pray
Lord, help us so to live that others might profit by our example. Give us grace to live faithfully in our time and place, to live the Christian life in such a way that others might see our lives and want to follow you because they see some of your light reflected in us.

Lord, give us the strength we need to serve you all our days, to be faithful in all things great and small, and to love you not only with our hearts, but also with our hands, to risk ourselves in loving acts of service to you and to our fellow human beings, your beloved children. Give us strength to be saints; in the power of Christ. Amen.

(1) Tom Long, Christian Century

(2) Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith, Time

(3) Bishop Wil Willimon, Reflections on All Saints Sunday

October 31, 2010 - Prodigal Lives Like Ours

Prodigal Lives like Ours
Luke 15.11-32

[The King’s Search]
    In the last of Tolstoy's "Twenty-three Tales" he tells the story of a king who is searching for the answers to three questions:
    +How can I know the right time to begin everything?
    +How do I know the right people to listen to?
    +And what things are most important and require my first attention?

    His search took him to the hut of a wise old hermit. Dressed in pauper's clothes, the king visited the hermit who lived deep in the forest.  As he approached the hermit, he saw that the hermit was on the verge of collapse. The king took the shovel the hermit had been working with and finished the job of digging his garden.
    At sundown, a bearded man with a terrible stomach wound staggered to the hermit's yard.  Unknown to the king, the man's wound had been dealt by the king's own guards who were keeping watch in the forest.  Gently, the king cleaned the wound, bandaged it, and stopped the bleeding.  Night fell, and the king slept on the threshold of the hut.
    When he awoke, he tended to the bearded man's wound and checked on the hermit.  The wounded man, overcome by guilt, made a confession to the king. He had been lying in wait for the king to return from the hermit's hut so he could kill him.  He was seeking revenge for a judgment the king had made against his brother some time in the past.  The king listened intently and then promised to send his own doctor to tend the man's wound.  Then he prepared to take his leave.
    Remembering his mission, the king asked the hermit the answers to the three questions.
    The hermit patiently explained that the king had received his answers on the previous day.  When the king had come upon the sickly hermit, he had finished digging his garden for him.  This was both the right thing at the right time and the most important matter at hand.  Had the king chosen instead to leave, he would have been killed by his enemy in the forest. Secondly, he helped the wounded man, which was again, the right thing at the right time.
    The hermit continued, "Remember then,
        +there is only one *time* that is important.  Now!" It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.
        +And then he added, "The *most necessary person* is the one with whom you are for you cannot know whether you will ever have dealings with any one else.
        +and the *most important thing* and the thing which requires your first attention is to do that person good, because for that *purpose* alone are we sent into this life!"(1).

The question that haunts me today is whether we are living with purpose – or just living? Tolstoy struggled with this question; you can see him working to answer it throughout his writings. We too must find purpose for our lives. We need a sense of purpose that shapes the way we live, the way we spend our money; the way we give our money; the great projects to which we give our lives.

    The parable of the Prodigal Son is only wonderful if you don't look at it closely.

    For years, we have imagined ourselves the Prodigal Child on an impulsive spending binge, then imagine ourselves coming home to Daddy with our maxed out Visa card in our hands. Right on cue, Daddy comes out with a big embrace and a smile to say, "Don't worry; it's only money. You didn't do anything we can't fix. Come on home." If sin and redemption are like this, then sign me up!
    Now, look at the story of the prodigal more closely. By looking at the Biblical world, we can see how grievously hurtful his actions have been. Most of what he did cannot be undone.
1. In a rural village in Biblical times, wealth was in the land your family owned and farmed. The father has inherited this land from his father and expects to hand it down to his sons; each generation of the family will make its living on this land. Even as the current father holds the family land in his name, he knows that he only holds it in trust for the family and he will pass it along to the next generation.

[LAND GRANT]  My great-grandpa Chisam received a Revolutionary War land grant from his father. It was located in White County, Tennessee, not far from the Warren County line. The family story says: when the Revolutionary War was over, the new American government did not have the money to pay the soldiers, so they told them they could go into the wilderness beyond the Appalachian Mountains. There each soldier was allowed to stake a claim on all the land he could walk around in a day. So, my Revolutionary War ancestor went to White County and staked his claim. There he settled down to farm and raise a family. When he died, he passed it to his children and they to their children after them.
    Years passed, and my great-grandfather inherited this land grant when it was his turn. Unfortunately, he wanted to hunt and fish more than he wanted to farm. So, to support his family, he began to sell of bits and pieces of the land grant until it was little more than a large building lot where the house was located. And that went to some other branch of the family. So, by the time I came along, the old people in the family knew where the land grant used to be, but it belonged to many others – not to our family. I remember going to the home place and standing where I could look around at the land which surrounded it. It is a magnificent piece of land. For years afterwards, the old people would tell that story, and then they would just drop the subject. That was the legacy of great-grandpa. The land that came to our family from such a noble beginning is lost from the family forever.

This legacy, and the possibility of losing it, is what every Biblical family understood. The wealth the father holds, which he will pass along to his sons, is family land. When the prodigal son sells it off, the land is not coming back. This is a decision with permanent results.

2. Now, the younger son comes to the father and says, "Divide to me the share that will come to me." We are talking about his inheritance when his father dies. He is basically saying to the old man, "Let's pretend you are dead; what do I get?" It is a horrible request. None of us can imagine saying such a cruel thing to our parents. It is unthinkable. But, the younger son asks, "Let's pretend you're dead." The hurt is beyond measure.

3. Jesus does not say WHY the father agreed to answer the younger son's question or why he was willing to transfer the property to the boy. He just says that the father did divide the property and transferred it to the boy. Now, the boy goes to the village gate and sells it at a fire sale price.
    Understand that the sale is not done in secret; in Biblical villages land was sold in the village gate where everyone could hear the transaction for themselves. You must also understand that the boy cannot sell this property without the father's approval – and maybe his insistence. It is humiliating for him. The village neighbors see exactly what is happening, and they know what the boy is doing to their long-time friend. They do not like it. They also understand that land is something that families hold in trust from generation to generation. This fire sale strikes at the heart of the village solidarity and order that they all count on.
    As much as the boy is shunning his father, he is also shunning the village which has raised him. He is walking away from his friends who expected to know him and expected to help him raise children of his own. This is humiliating for the whole village.

4. Dividing farm land is not easy. Taking the younger boy's portion and cutting it out of the farm will place the remaining farm operation at risk. That land down by the creek which was perfect for grazing the cattle – gone. The vineyard that provided income – sold. The remaining farming operation must be reorganized and watched closely.

5. So, this is the prodigal. He willingly humiliates his father and the entire village. He turns his stake in their lives to cash and leaves town. He has said, "I'm through with you and everything you represent. I will never be back." And the village, in solidarity with the humiliated father, is thinking, "Good riddance."

    So, as you read the story of the prodigal son, I caution you not to get to attached to the younger son. He does permanent damage to his family and his village; he is not the character you want to claim for yourself.

II. Adam Hamilton in his study on stewardship and money, titled:  Enough, takes this moment to look back at the Prodigal Son. He sees in the prodigal the modern tendency to live for the moment. The prodigal also demonstrates the life that is too busy with consumption to build anything or to work for anything.
        1. Many of have a bit of the prodigal son in us: We have the habits of squandering and wasting money.
        2. Society and the constant advertizing around us tell us that our life-purpose is to consume. Analysts tells us that one of the reasons for the current Great Recession is that Americans have been scared into saving more and spending less.
    What is it that comedian Rodney Dangerfield famously said? "I resemble that remark." Do we resemble this description of Americans squandering and wasting money? Maybe we haven't lost the family land grant single-handedly; but maybe we have spent so much on nothing that we cannot do some other, substantial things that require money.

III. So, what is our purpose as human beings and as Christians? While the ads that surround us tell us that our purpose is to consume, the Bible tells us that our life purpose is to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Our money and possessions should be devoted to helping us fulfill this calling.

    Remember God's call to Abraham in the 12th chapter of the book of Genesis?

12:1  Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. 2  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3  I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen 12.1-3).

Imagine God saying to you and to me: "I will bless you... so that you will be a blessing." Our purpose in life is not our own pleasure, as the prodigal son thought.
    The playwright George Bernard Shaw said it this way in the **Epistle Dedicatory** in the **Man and Superman**:
This is the true joy in life:
+the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one;
+the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap;
    +the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish, little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy (3).

[What's Your Purpose in Life?]
    Josh McDowell tells about an executive “headhunter” who recruits corporate executives for large firms. This headhunter once told McDowell that when he interviews an executive, he likes to disarm him. “I offer him a drink,” said the headhunter, “take off my coat, undo my tie, throw up my feet and talk about baseball, football, family, whatever, until he’s all relaxed. Then, when I think I’ve got him relaxed, I lean over, look him square in the eye and say, ‘What’s your purpose in life?’ It’s amazing how top executives fall apart at that question.”
    Then he told about interviewing one fellow recently. He had him all disarmed, had his feet up on his desk, talking about football. Then the headhunter leaned over and said, “What’s your purpose in life, Bob?” And the executive said, without blinking an eye, “To go to heaven and take as many people with me as I can.”
    “For the first time in my career,” said the headhunter, “I was speechless.” No wonder. He had encountered someone who was prepared. He was ready. His purpose, “To go to heaven and take as many people with me as I can.”(4).

If someone at lunch after church today leans across the table and asks you this question, what will you answer? What is your purpose in life?

[Whatever It Takes]
    A motivational speaker once said there are two kinds of people in this world: those who say *whatever* and those who say, *whatever it takes*. *Whatever* is the response of the shrug. It's a who cares? attitude, one of indifference and apathy. *Whatever it takes* is the response of the committed. It's a can do attitude that refuses to give up or give in. Think about those two responses when it comes to the Church's mission.
    Jesus said to love your neighbor. *Whatever*.
    Jesus said to go and make disciples of all people. *Whatever*.
        Jesus said there is more rejoicing over one sinner who is found than 99 that stayed within the fold. *Whatever*.
Now, lets change that response to *Whatever it takes*.
    Jesus said to love your neighbor. *Whatever it takes*.
    Jesus said to go and make disciples of all people. *Whatever it takes*.
        Jesus said there is more rejoicing over one sinner who is found than 99 that stayed within the fold. *Whatever it takes*.
Are you and I, like Paul, willing to do *whatever it takes* to win the world to Christ? (5).

[CONCL] Now, let's get practical. In Adam Hamilton's study, *Enough*, he is applying these principles to the way we use our money and resources. Getting practical means applying the great principles and purposes of our lives to the way we use our money and resources. He offers several practical steps:

        +Set goals. What do we want to accomplish in the coming year, in the coming five years? How can we use our money to reach that goal?
        +Develop a plan. The saying is true: "A failure to plan is a plan to fail." So, develop and plan and get started.
        +Do your giving intentionally. For many of us, giving intentionally means giving a percentage or a tithe of our income.
        +Focus on God's purpose for your life. Life does not grow until it is stretched. Choose God's great purposes for your life. Let God's purposes stretch you and call out your very best.

1. Tolstoy, Leo. "Three Questions," a short-story from Twenty-three Tales.
3. Shaw, George Bernard. The Man and Superman, penguin Press, 2001; p. 32
4. Dr. Gary Nicolosi, Sermons: “Preparing for the End Time”
5. Reverend Dr. Gary Nicolosi, Sermon

Sunday, October 31, 2010

October 24, 2010 - Up to our Eyeballs in Alligators

Up to Our Eyeballs in Alligators
Psalm 121

[Pecans in the Cemetery]
    On the outskirts of a small town, there was a big, old pecan tree just inside the cemetery fence. One day, two boys filled up a bucketful of nuts and sat down by the tree, out of sight, and began dividing the nuts. "One for you, one for me. One for you, one for me," said one boy. A couple of them dropped and rolled down toward the fence.
    Another boy came riding along the road on his bicycle. As he passed, he thought he heard voices from inside the cemetery. He slowed down to investigate. Sure enough, he heard, "One for you, one for me. One for you, one for me." He just knew what it was,  so he jumped back on his bike and rode off.
    Now just around the bend he met an old man with a cane, hobbling along. "Come here quick," said the boy, "you won't believe what I heard!  Satan and the Lord are down at the cemetery dividing up the souls."
     The man said, "Beat it kid, can't you see it's hard for me to walk?" When the boy insisted though, the man hobbled to the cemetery.  Standing by the fence they heard, "One for you, one for me. One for you, one for me..." The old man whispered, "Boy, you've been tellin' the truth.  Let's see if we can see the Lord." Shaking with fear, they peered through the fence yet were still unable to see anything.
    The old man and the boy gripped the wrought iron bars of the fence tighter and tighter as they tried to get a glimpse of the Lord.  At last they heard, "One for you, one for me. That's all.  *Now let's go get those nuts by the fence and we'll be done."* In terror, the old man and the boy looked at each other, then took off a-running.
    They say the old man made it back to town a full 5 minutes ahead of the boy on the bike!

What are we afraid of in America today? I believe that the overall atmosphere of this nation is fear.
    +Fear of terrorism,
    +fear of the nation’s long economic recession,
    +fear about what will happen if the wrong people get elected;
    +fear that we will walk into an Al Qaida plot while traveling in Europe,
    +the list goes on and on.

Far too often, it is fear that shapes the way we vote, the way we lock up our houses, the way we spend or do not send our money, and much more.
    And we keeping wondering, “How did we get into this mess?” Or more to the point, “How do we get out of this mess?”

    An old Jewish saying tells us that difference between being smart and being wise is that the person who is smart knows how to get out of a situation which the wise person would never have gotten into in the first place. As the sky falls around us, what we've learned is that America, for all its SMARTS, lacks WISDOM, that is, the ability to see what lies ahead and how to proceed after hitting a fork in the road. And so we worry that even our smarts may not extricate us from hole we're in.
    It is a time of fear, and so we worry. In such a time as this, do we have any word from God? Lord God, I hope so.

[ABC-TV] In 2007, ABC-TV presented a special by John Stossel with the title: "Scared Stiff: Worry in America." It raised the question: "Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?" Have we created an atmosphere of fear which is hurting our health-as-people and our heart-as-Americans?

    There's a lot to be scared about. The media hit us with endless warnings: terrorism, swine flu, vicious crime, cancer, global warming and much more. **But are all worries created equal?** It turns out that what we worry about is often different from what's most likely to hurt us.

            *Terrorism:* How big is the risk? The program looked at what the American Enterprise Institute calls "terror porn": billions of dollars wasted in the name of safety, and what you could call the F.I.C., or the *"Fear Industrial Complex"*: politicians, lawyers, activists and media, who have an incentive to keep us scared. They stay in business by spreading fear. Skeptics, like John Mueller, author of "Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats," say the threat is overblown, and Americans are less likely to be killed by an international terrorist than by driving into a deer.

            *Kidnaping and Molestation*: C.N.N.'s "Nancy Grace" and Dateline's "Predator" programs earn high ratings by focusing on molestation and kidnaping. The Center for Missing and Exploited Children runs powerful public service announcements about abducted kids. But what damage is done by the fear they spread? Kids are much more frightened about kidnaping than they are about the other risks that are *more* likely to hurt them.

            [*Vaccines*: Many activists have blamed some vaccines for IQ loss, mental retardation and autism. People are catching easily preventable diseases because we have frightened the public about vaccines.]

        The *Law of Unintended Consequences* is alive and well: Politicians pass laws in the name of safety, but safety regulations can create new problems:

            *Bike helmet laws*: Countries that require bicyclists to wear helmets find that fewer people ride, possibly making us fatter. And it's not clear that the mandatory helmets result in fewer injuries. And when I started wearing a helmet, I took more risks -- I used to ride in Knoxville City traffic right down Broadway from Fountain City into town.

            [*Sanitizing the house*: Some experts claim that sterile houses may be giving more children asthma.]

            *Child safety caps*: Medicine bottles are now so tough to open that some people leave the cap off. Poisonings result.

We have become a people driven by our fears. We fear that we are up to our eyeballs in alligators, and thus alligators are all we look for.
    But worse yet, sometimes I think that we believe ourselves to be better persons because we are so focused on our worries. What do you mean that you have no worries? Aren’t you taking life seriously? Didn’t you see the warning? People who are not as fearful as we are should be taught to be afraid.

    [STORY - No Fear of Hell]
    In the very earliest days of the settlement of Arizona, the Archbishop of Los Angeles sent a missionary out to Phoenix to try to establish a church there. After two years, the priest returned to tell the archbishop that he could not establish a congregation in Phoenix.
        "Why not?" asked the Bishop. "Are there no people there?"
        "Well, yes, there are people there," said the priest. But those who live there during the winter have no need of heaven and those who live in Arizona during the summer have no fear of hell." (2)

II. Think about it: If that priest was to look at America today, how would he evaluate our spiritual situation? Adam Hamilton, in his study, Enough, points to one area: Our current economic crisis is not merely the result of bad policies of the housing and banking  industries. Rather, they are born of a spiritual crisis.

    +People have gotten into economic trouble because we reached for more houses and cars and stuff than we could possibly pay for. The spiritual term for this is *pride*.
    +Lenders have encouraged us to borrow beyond our means so they could make a profit on the loan or the sale we generate. The spiritual term for this is *greed*.
    +We have watched as our neighbors got the newest and the latest and felt we had to keep up. The spiritual term for this is *envy*.

    What has happened to our capacity to look at all that we already have and be satisfied? Or to look at the family and blessings we enjoy daily and give thanks for all the blessings God has bestowed upon us? What has happened to our ability to stand with other Americans and give thanks for all the blessings God has poured out in such abundance upon this nation? We become too busy getting the next one to give thanks for God's blessings and care. We are too busy getting more. It is a spiritual crisis.
[B.] It is a spiritual problem when the fact that we have all the houses and cars and stuff that we can handle does not lead us to the conclusion that we have ENOUGH. Instead of gratitude, we panic that we will not be able to buy the next one. And in our panic, we assume the reasons we cannot handle more are due to external threats which someone should do something about. But, the Bible teaches us that we should not be watching constantly for alligators (or terrorists, or Stock Market crashes, or oil spills); the Bible teaches us that we should be watching for the signs that God is among us.

    God wants us to live in trust, not in fear. The Bible was written in the midst of all the same worries that beset us now. Wars are nothing new. Aggression is not new. Disease is not new. Hard economic times are not new. In the middle of the same kinds of worries that trouble us, the Bible was written by people of faith who chose faith instead of fear.

    Paul said to the Philippians from his jail cell:
    6  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4.6f).

God calls us to set aside our fears and live in trust.
    +Trust that the God who has brought us this far will be with us regardless what the future holds.
    + Trust that the God who claimed us as God’s own children on the day of our baptism will claim us tomorrow.
    +Trust that the God who was able to create the world and declare it good is able to sustain the world so that it will once again be good for all the living.

[ILLUS: The Keys to the Car]
    Have you seen the TV commercial that shows a father talking to his little girl about the responsibilities of driving? She looks like she is not more than five years old. As the commercial continues, she is transformed into a 16 or 17 year old young lady – obviously ready for her first solo drive.

    There are transitional moments in life that confirm something tremendous has taken place. These are those moments in a teenager's life and in the lives of parents when a mom or a dad gives to their teen the keys to the car. Many of us have already experienced this. Some of you still have to experience it, but, I guarantee you, it's going to happen. It's going to be a step of growth for you.
    Parents, it's a time when you release your child into the adult world.
    Teens, it’s a time when your parents give you adult responsibilities.
It's a change in our lives from which none of us are ever going to turn back.

    Remember the scripture where Jesus said to the disciples: "As the Father has sent Me, so send I you." Jesus is tossing the keys to the kingdom to His disciples. He is demonstrating that He is accepting them as His followers but Jesus is also demonstrating to them that He is entrusting to them the message of the gospel. He gives to them a great privilege. Jesus is showing them that He believes in them (4).

IV. Now, remember Psalm-121 with which we began our worship this morning? It is a Psalm which speaks of the confidence and peace which rests upon God's faithfulness.

    2 My help comes from the LORD,
        who made heaven and earth.
    4 He who keeps Israel
        will neither slumber nor sleep.
    7 The LORD will keep you from all evil;
        he will keep your life.

+Because God is faithful, we can live in confidence.
+Because God is faithful, what we have can be enough.
+Because God is faithful, we can lay down our heads to rest each night in peace.

    Now, I invite you to turn to Psalm 121 again and pray the Psalm we have been reading. Pray this Psalm to still the anxious fears that what we already have will not be enough. Let its confidence still your fear that you will be left behind by the latest toys or phones or cars in the stores. Let this Psalm whisper to us a reminder that it is not the stuff-we-have but faith-in-God that is the foundation of our peace.

    Let us pray:
    Lord, I lift up my eyes to the hills–from where will my help come? I know and I am confident that my help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. LORD, keep our going out and our coming in from this time on and forevermore. This we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen

1.  In 2007 ABC-TV presented a special by John Stossel with the title: "Scared Stiff: Worry in America" 02/23/07
2. James R. Gorman, Leaving Evil to God
3. Rev. Sharon Moon, Sermon: “Rejoice and Proclaim Jubilee”“
4. Pastor Don Walker, "Commissioned to a New Ministry"

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

October 17, 2010 - Just the Way it Is

Just the Way It Is
Luke 18.1-8 The widow and the Unjust Judge

    Like all great storytellers, Jesus had the ability to tell stories that address us and address our world on many levels – all at the same time. Imagine a parable as an onion, with layers of meaning – each one giving us a new insight, and each one with the power to bring us to tears. The only difference between those who listened to Jesus and us is that they probably knew the particular situation Jesus is weaving into his story: the community, the job, probably even the names.

    Jesus told a parable about a persistent widow who went to a Judge to plead for justice. The Judge looked at the woman, but being a man – a man of power, and a man with more important things to do – he ignored her. And the widow, having no other way to defend herself, simply went back to the Judge day after day, pleading her case, crying out for justice. She may have been powerless, but she would not be quiet about it.
    And at this point, even before the story is finished, we think to ourselves: "That's just the way it is." Like it or not and far too often, this is just the way life works:
        +Despite all the gains in women's rights across the years, a woman without a husband is not taken as seriously as she should be;
        +And any woman, accompanied by her husband, who shops for something important like a car, will find the salesperson talking her husband not to her.

        [EXAMPLE] An unmarried woman in Bible Study this week told about a fairly recent experience of going to shop for a car – a Mercury, as I recall – here in Knoxville. She drove onto the lot; the salesman met her as she got out of her car. She had already been doing some shopping, so she told him what she was looking for. His response to her rather specific request was a question: “And, where is your husband today?” That was a 21st Century response, not a 1st Century response.

        +Men still have the power to make all kinds of decisions that affect the lives of others;
I'm not sure how the world works in other parts of the country, but here in the South, this is still the way it is. You can work with it creatively or you can just get mad. The world is not going to change; you choose.//

    Jesus told a story that recognizes the way of this world. There was widow (a woman with no power and no male relative to speak for her) and there was an unjust judge (a man with power). Well, the widow thought that some guy was treating her unjustly, and she came to the judge to ask for the justice that should be hers.
    +Some guy was taking advantage of the fact that she was a widow;
    +And the judge, who is supposed to set things right neither feared God nor cared about anybody. He had better things to worry about. In other words, the old boy was shameless.

    2. [ABOUT JUDGES] I know that the U.S. Supreme Court and the Tennessee Code Annotated have plenty to say about judges and their official conduct. For those who are aspiring to become judges one day, I want to point out that God offers the world a very high sense of justice and work of judgment. This is what God has to say about the work of judges. You’ll find it in 2 Chronicles 19.4ff:

    King Jehoshaphat appointed judges in the land in all the fortified cities of Judah, city by city, and said to the judges, "Consider what you are doing, for you judge not on behalf of persons but on the Lord's behalf; the Lord is with you whenever you give judgment. Now, let the fear of the LORD be upon you; take care what you do, for there is no perversion of justice with the LORD our God, or partiality, or taking of bribes."

The world may work another way, but God offers a much loftier vision.
    Now, Jesus told a story about life and right and wrong and men and women and the way life works. And in Jesus' hands any story has a way of making us see the world in new ways.

I. First, Jesus said that the widow was PERSISTENT and came back to the judge over and over to plead her cause. She kept coming back so long that, even though he did not care about her or her case, she wore him down. And he gave her the justice she sought.
    It is first a lesson about prayer and asking God to answer our deepest needs. According to Luke, Jesus told us that persistence in prayer is the way to ask God to give us what we need. There are many reasons God might not answer our prayers as quickly as we'd like. Despite any delays, Jesus assures us that God does hear our prayers as surely as that Judge could not escape the widow's pleas. And Jesus urges us not to grow weary of asking in prayer. The God who loves us will answer more surely than a sorry old judge who has "no fear of God and no respect for anyone."

II. Second layer is not so much about theology as it is about practicality:  Jesus taught his disciples that the way to deal with the powerful in the world is by PERSISTENT use of the tools you have. The widow did not have anyone that she could call on to speak for her; she was not as powerful as the opponent who was troubling her. But, she could keep doing what she could do – she could go back again and again until the Judge acted. As for the judge, he could get away with ignoring her, but apparently he could not get away with silencing her or running her off. She did not suffer in silence, and she was not going to let him suffer in her silence either. She continued persistently until he relented and gave her the justice she sought.

    Remember how angry people became when the Chairman of BP Oil made that “little people” comment in his statement that was supposed to be an apology to the nation? In a meeting with President Obama in the White House, BP’s CEO Carl-Henric Svanberg, apologized for the spill, then offered a public statement of remorse to the nation afterwards. But Svanberg apology was not well received when he committed a blunder by saying: “We care about the little people.”

And everyone of us, who have found ourselves powerless before the powerful in this world, hear from Jesus a word of encouragement as we go out to struggle against the wrongs that we face. You and I may be just “the little people” to the powerful of this world, but like the widow, we can use what we have.

    [CHILE] What an incredible story of courage and persistence unfolded for the world this week at the San Jose mine in Chile. Thirty-three miners kept their composure while they waited to be contacted. Then, they stayed organized and together until their rescue this week. There is no doubt that the President of Chile played his part, and many others, from several nations, brought necessary skills and resources to the rescue operation. It became the feel-good story we can all take part in. I guess Tony Hayworth would include Chilean miners among the “little people” of the world, but what an example of courage and persistence they have given us! So many people prayed for their safe return, and now we have the joy of seeing them safe and at home.

Prayer is the stabilizing work that keeps our faith upright, that keeps us in the game, that positions us to receive from God what God wants us to have. Prayer is a practice that connects us to the power that is much greater than ourselves, a power that can fill us and change us and strengthen us and guide us. Prayer is a practice that is perfected by persistence – by disciplined determination to be in an ongoing conversation with God.

    Powerful people sometimes step-on OR step-over others in their way; that’s just the way world is. But, Jesus used the parable to teach us – all of us – about persistence and prayer.

III. Third layer: we need to return to what this passage tells us about God.
    Who do you identify with the story as Luke tells it?
    +With the widow?
    +OR With the Judge?
In a Bible study, someone led us through an exercise in which we wrote down the qualities of the widow and then of the Judge. Just make a list in your mind or on your order of service:
What are the qualities of the widow?
    +believes in justice,
    +respects the authority of the Judge to make the decision,
    +stands up for her rights,
    +(you can add others.)
What are the qualities of the Judge?
    +unwilling to do the right thing,
    +refuses to listen to someone who wants to trust him,
    +serves justice based on a person's status or power or money,
    +(again, you can add more.)

Now, looking at your lists, which one of these characters is most like God? It looks like the widow. And which is most like people? It looks more like the Judge. Which one of them looks like any of us? Immediately, I realized that I have been reading this parable upside down. The Judge is most like me and people of all kinds; the widow is most like God.
        +Like the widow, God is persistent in calling us to live up to the faith we claim. God believes in justice, but God allows people to make their own decision about faith and faithfulness. And yet, God also stands up for God's right to be God.
        +And people like us keeping putting off God's call to do right in our dealings with others; people like us keep putting off God's call to faith and faithfulness in our dealings with God. If God has the right be God and call for our faithfulness, then we are unjust in putting God off with our half-way commitment and self-serving faith.
    We know how the world works, but to hear Jesus tell this story is to see ourselves in a new light.

To read this parable, seeing ourselves as self-serving old judges who hold God the supplicant off at a distance is to see ourselves and our claims in a whole new light. Does God the Almighty come to the likes of us in willing powerlessness to wait upon our decision?
    +Faith in God or rebellion against God?
    +Faithfulness to God's ways or unfaithfulness?
    +Living justly to be a blessing OR living  to serve no one but ourselves?

IV. The last line of the story in Luke is the most challenging:
    "I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18.8)

The last layer of the story is Jesus’ teaching on the character of faith. Through the story, he is teaching us what faith is. Then, he asks, “When I come again, will I find faith in you? In the church? In the world?

    For too long we have accepted the view that faith is merely our agreement to a set of propositions about God.
    +God is great.
    +God is good.
    +God is love.

Whatever the list of propositions, we have presented faith as our willing assent to such a list. But, the definition of faith as Jesus presents it in this parable is much richer and more robust than any list of propositions. Read the parable again. What does Jesus teach us about faith through this parable?
    +Faith is praying in the confidence that God hears;
    +Faith is praying persistently in the face of God's delay or God's silence;
    +Faith is listening and responding when God calls on us to hear;
    +Faith is acting justly;
    +Faith is exercising the authority that we enjoy – but, in the fear of God.
    +Faith is responding to God's call and God's claims on us.
Instead of a list to accept, faith is walking alongside God each day.

    [FOOTBALL] To borrow a football metaphor: faith is never taking your eye off that Alabama linebacker who is surely coming. When the ball is snapped, you’d better not be tying your shoelaces.

    When Jesus comes, will he find faith in us? In our church? In our world?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

October 10, 2010- Children's Sunday

Technically, every Sunday is Children's Sunday, but last week we celebrated their ministry among us in a very special way. Our children's choirs offered the music, children served as greeters, liturgists, and ushers. They led the "Moments with all God's Children," and even led the "Prayers of the People." We are blessed by our children every week at Church Street, if you could not be among us, you missed an awesome day of worship. This sermon is dedicated to our children and those with a child's heart for God's great world.


"Bullies, Boys, and Grace"
Rev. Sarah Varnell
Luke 19:1-10

“Zaccheaus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he...” be honest, as soon as the Gospel story was read and you heard the name Zaccheaus, you thought the same thing. This story takes us back to out childhood when learning bible stories meant songs, games, coloring pages, and obvious life application. As adults we tell ourselves, it’s not as complicated for children...without the worries of adulthood, to understand why Jesus says and does what he says and does. Sometimes, children know what is right, they just choose outright not to apply it to their lives, or in a moment of anger at family, friend, or peer they conveniently forget their convictions...or they get too tired or cranky or annoyed to worry about how it affects others. Somewhere in there I stopped talking about children and started addressing the condition and struggles of all God’s people.


Way back in my memory vault of Children’s Church, one of the many times we heard the story of Zaccheaus, my class was called on to perform a skit. So, we made a plan- we needed someone to play Jesus, a few people to be disciples, a Zaccheaus, a bunch of tall people to be the crowd, a sycamore tree, and some other objects for the scenery on the streets of Jericho. One kid always played Jesus, so he was assigned the part of Jesus, and the shortest kid in our group was assigned the role of Zaccheaus. I wasn’t much taller than Mark to be in the crowd, nor was I sophisticated enough to be disciple material, so I took on the role of the shrub in the road on the way to Jericho, a glamorous and not-so-essential part of the tale. If you had listened to the story with your imagination, you would know the role that I speak of. Afterall, there are no small roles, only small actors. And that particular day the shrub saved Jesus from a skinned knee! I remember not really knowing what taxes were or why they were such a big deal, and so we all felt sorry for Zaccheaus that the crowd bullied him around- poor little Zaccheaus.

As a child, this felt like a story about bullies, being nice to people, noticing the little guy (like Jesus), and making that person your friend.

Later that day I made the connection, though, about why a tax collector was a bad job, as I watched the Disney version of Robin hood, and the Sheriff of Nottingham went around collecting money from the poor people who barely had enough to eat. The sweet, pudgy, Friar Tuck passed out the money, and that mean old Sheriff took it without one bit of remorse. For example, as he was walking around Nottingham one day, he stopped in at a house full of bunnies. The bunnies had many children and were very poor. One of the bunnies was celebrating his birthday and his family gave him one golden coin, but as soon as that greedy Sheriff saw the coin he swiped it up in the name of taxes! TAXES! UGH! The tables turned in my head- Zaccheaus was not poor little Zaccheaus, he was the bully! Suddenly, I no longer knew the point of the story. What was Jesus thinking? And, what were my teachers thinking teaching us to feel sorry for a mean old bully??

My confusion over this story remains the same... is it poor little Zaccheaus or poor little crowd? The lesson we teach to our children is that bullying is wrong, friendships and understanding are important, and Jesus is the ultimate example of acceptance.

It seems like, for children, you’re never big enough to do the things that you dream about doing. Conversely, for adults, you can never go back to those innocent days when life was so easy, children never know how good they have it until they don’t. Driving is one of those “issues.” When you finally realize that one day you will be behind the wheel in charge of the destination of the car, you cannot wait for the day to arrive! It means independence, control of destiny, pulling in to McDonald's anytime you crave a Happy Meal, and freedom! But as soon as 16 comes around it becomes obvious way too fast that driving brings with it responsibility, money, and higher expectations...not to mention acquiring a car. With greater power comes greater responsibility, and a little bit of the childhood excitement and curiosity over the new privilege begins to fade until one day you look in the mirror, and realize: I am an adult.

When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, this was my answer: An astronaut, a ballerina, and a pizza maker. Bear in mind that my middle name is not, and will not ever be grace...and I still don’t know how to make a decent pizza without the assistance of the frozen food section at Kroger, but as a child I read every book about space travel that I could get my hands on. I remember a very significant showdown on the playground over my career aspirations. In class we were assigned to draw a picture of ourselves as an adult doing whatever it was that we wanted to do when we grew up. So I drew a picture of a woman in an astronaut suit with a tutu, ballerina slippers, and a pizza in hand. On the playground that day, we were splitting into teams for kick ball. One of my friends, who happenned to be the fastest runner in the second grade, did not pick me for his team (which was the better of the teams).

Finally, being the mix of tomboy and girlie girl that I was- wearing a skirt most everyday, but insisting on wearing shorts underneath so that I was ready to play with the boys on the playground- I asked my friend why he did not pick me. He said, “You’re a girl!” I said, “I know, soooo!” And he said, “Girls can’t be astronauts. Your picture was stupid.” Before I could argue back or push him down or throw the ball at him, the new boy in class spoke up and he said, “My Momma said that girls can do anything they want, just like boys.” From that moment on, I was in love. Finally, someone who saw me for what I was... a girl without the glass ceiling... a girl who could play kickball... a girl who would go to the moon if her heart desired. So I played my heart out for the underdog team that day, all the while keeping my eye on the new kid, the new love of my elementary school life.

Kids struggle with bullies, people that assume they have power, that really only have power when we give it over to them. Youth struggle with bullies. Adults struggle with bullies too... people in our workplaces or friends they put unnecessary pressure on us, or just the occasional jerk on the road who acts like he is the most important car on the road. Bullies come in all forms and fashions in the adult world and in kid world, and do we really deal with them all that differently as adults? I, for one, do what I did as a child... stay out of their way when I can, and when I have the opportunity to respond I get myself in more trouble my running my mouth too much.

Zaccheaus was a man who deserved my childhood pity and my adult displeasure. He was a tax collector for the occupying nation, which means that he is a traitor to his people, placing his needs above others by taking their money mercilessly. No wonder the people did not care if Zaccheaus could see Jesus that day in Jericho, Zaccheaus didn’t need Jesus. Jesus saw the lowly, and the downtrodden, and gave them worth. Zaccheaus, though small in stature, stepped on those already down and sold his soul to the occupying nation. Yet, Zaccheaus was also a child of Abraham, a child of God.

I’m sure many of you join me in having moments in your life with people that you could not stand, because they were bullies, because they were incompetent at their job, because they let the power go to their head, and you have had moments when they have become human to you. God lets you peer into their heart, or learn something about their childhood or home life that suddenly helps you to understand and even excuse their behavior. It doesn’t make it easier or better, but it does make judging them more complicated.

In the case of Zaccheaus, Jesus does a powerful thing. He actually sees Zaccheaus for who he truly is- a child of God- in need of a serious lesson in God’s grace to be applied asap to his life.

So, Jesus, in front of the crowd, applies the difficult challenge he offers in Matthew 5:43-46, “‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same?”

Now it seems that bullying has soared to new levels in our modern times with even more complicated results. In the last month alone 4 teenagers have taken their lives on account of bullying. At least two of them on account of being bullied about their sexual orientation. Talk show host and comedian, Ellen Degeneres put out a powerful response to this in a short blurb calling people in this country to do something about it, she says, “this needs to be a wake up call to everyone that bullying is an epidemic in this country. One life lost is a tragedy, and four lives lost is a crisis...” And then she says to those being bullied: “things will get easier, people’s minds will change, and you should be alive to see it.”

So, hear me clearly when I say that Jesus calls us to love our enemies, but loving your enemies doesn’t mean that you have to put yourself in a position to take the abuse of a bully- at home, in the workplace, or anywhere else in the world. If you are in this position, I join my voice with the wise words of Ellen, “there is help out there, and you need support.” Dear friends, you too are a child of God, and God does not put us in relationship with others to be abused, physically, mentally, spiritually, or emotionally. Being a child of God, you have a built in family and the way God's children approach bullies is by recognizing the humanity in the bully, standing together and saying, "No more."

Also, keep in mind, we are not Jesus in this story. It is significant that JESUS is the one who has the power and the ability to change Zaccheaus’ heart. Don’t try to be Jesus in your life, you cannot change someone, so don't convince yourself to take abuse in the hope of changing them. Rather, pray that the power of God will work in the lives of the Zaccheauses that you face, but recognize that is a work only performed by God, who has the power to set us free from whatever holds us captive.

Zaccheaus was a wee little man, a tax collector and traitor to his people, and a child of God. May we be people of grace who advocate for the oppressed, who love our enemies and our friends, and above all, with the curiosity of a child, may we love and cherish the God who made a way when there was no way and who does new things with old stories in our midst. The lesson we teach to our children is that bullying is wrong, friendships and understanding are important, and Jesus is the ultimate example of acceptance...and even as we look in the mirror and see the adult looking back at us, we’re still learning this lesson.

Take a moment, pray for your enemies... pray for bullies... pray for victims...pray especially for our children.