Monday, December 8, 2014

December 7 Sermon: Spend Less

Isaiah 40:1-11
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lordshall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord Godcomes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
We are in the second week of the Advent season, which is supposed to be the season of expectation that the church observes in the weeks before our celebration of Jesus’s birth, but it seems that most everybody is already into full-on Christmas. I was reading a blog post the this week from a United Methodist pastor who was in a coffee shop just the other day!, eavesdropping on a spirited conversation among eight people who, to a person, were already sick of Christmas. They said things like:
“I am so glad my kids are finally grown so I don’t have to watch those insipid kiddy shows like Rudolph and Charlie Brown!”
“I hate the crowds, all the garish decorations — and the music.  I will vomit if I hear Bing Crosby or Nat King Cole one more time.”
“It must be hell to be Muslim or Jewish in the United States in December.”
“December!  I saw Christmas decorations up at Halloween!”
Now, this is all interesting to me for two reasons, besides the fact that I happen to like Charlie Brown, thank you very much. As a professional religious person, I’m particularly concerned this time of year about the kinds of things that keep people from experiencing a proper Christmas, and we’re going to spend some time this morning talking about that problem, because it is a real problem. If Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus two thousand years ago in a manger, just as it is about Jesus being born once again in your heart, we’ve missed the forest for the Christmas trees, and in the interest of preparing the way for Jesus’s birth by spending lots of money and being run ragged as we dash between Christmas parties, we’ve all been made miserable.
I mean, this is the time of year that the church ends up being its crankiest. I don’t ever seen church members as stressed out as I do this time of year, and it’s almost a tragedy, really, because this is supposed to be a time to pause, to celebrate, to remember. And we get so busy, so swept up in recreating memories from yesteryear that have been painted so much rosier over the passage of time that it is literally impossible to meet our own expectations, never mind the fact that many of us are also busy attempting to create memories for our children and grandchildren that they won’t be able to recreate down the road, either. And so we all end up disappointed. We get so stuck wondering what is wrong with us that we can’t seem to get to a place where we actually experience Christmas.
But there’s another reason that the conversation about seeing Christmas decorations at Halloween or whatever is interesting to me, and it is that—as you may have heard me say before—I am not immune from the impulse of stretching Christmas as far as it will stretch. In fact, the joke around my house growing up was that it wasn’t Christmas at the Rushings if you weren’t confusing the trick-or-treaters. I love Christmas. I love getting ready for Christmas. I love Christmas decorations and Christmas cookies and Christmas presents and Christmas cookies and Christmas china and Christmas cookies. I hope you will come to the parsonage this Saturday for our Christmas open house, because we’ve decorated the place to the hilt, and there is at least a slight possibility that there will be some Christmas cookies left for you. The preparation is part of the fun. I want to affirm that. I love getting ready for Christmas.
The problem comes when the preparation becomes so much that what you end up doesn’t look like Christmas at all. It doesn’t look like the birth of Christ so much as it looks like the spirit of Christmas threw up all over your living room. At some point, the preparations blind you to what Christmas is, and that’s not to say that the preparations are bad. It’s just to say that if we are not careful, they can distract us from the truth of Christmas, which is that God so loved us that Christ was born in a stable, outside, among animals, laid in a trough to keep warm, that he understood what it meant to be poor and marginalized, that whosoever believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life.
“Prepare the way of the Lord,” says the prophet Isaiah. “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
This is what we are preparing for: not the Ghost of Christmas past, but the coming of God into a broken world. The birth of a savior: someone to save us from our rampant sin and our inability to purely love.
I realize that this puts more pressure on the hanging of the garland, the stringing of lights, and that more pressure is the last thing we need in the season. And yet, while the garland is nice, while the tree and the presents and the cookies are nice, they are not what Isaiah is talking about. They are not what John the Baptist is talking about when he says that he has come to be the voice crying out in the wilderness, “prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” John the Baptist wasn’t talking about spending your life savings at Walmart when he proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. You might even say that God came to save us from the kinds of things we get obsessed with in this season. Repentance, forgiveness, are about letting things go, the waters of baptism are about washing away, about letting things go, removing obstacles to love, not buying more things, but clearing a path.
I mean, I don’t know if you have ever had the chance to actually, literally clear a path, as in cut brush and make a path, but it’s not easy work. Maybe you remember that the second President Bush used to get flack for going out to blaze trails and clear brush when he needed to clear his mind, but never from me—it’s good, mind-clearing work! There is something about clearing a path that helps to clear your mind: something about cutting through the brush and plants and trees to make a path. And maybe this sounds weird to you, but when I am having a rough day in the office, I usually look out the window and daydream about clearing brush.
I think it is significant that John the Baptist didn’t talk about buying anything to get ready for Jesus. He didn’t talk about decorating or anything like that. He talked about clearing the way, cutting a path, literally removing things that stood between humanity and the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Here we are spending and spending and spending, going into debt in order to somehow honor the birth of Jesus, and in this season as we participate in the Advent Conspiracy, as we attempt to spend less, what we are told to do in scripture is to clear, to remove, to pluck. (…)
All of this reminds me of one of my favorite early church fathers, who we know as the Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. That’s not on the test, so don’t worry about writing his name down, but we call him the Pseudo-Dionysius because back in the late fifth century when he was doing his writing, he used the pen name of Dionysius the Areopagite, a character in the book of Acts who was converted by the apostle Paul five hundred years prior. So he’s not actually the Dionysius. He’s the Pseudo-Dionysius. Sort of like a cover band.
And the Pseudo-Dionysius talks about the ways in which we know God, and I don’t want to get too philosophical here, but I think maybe this might be helpful. Specifically, he talks about the via negativa, the negative way we know God, and here is what he means.
Every time we talk about who God is, we use human language, and this is good, because it just so happens this is the only language we have. And so we talk about how God is loving, and just, and merciful, and powerful, and all the rest. These are good things. But at some point, our language not being strong enough to contain God’s attributes, we actually distract ourselves from the nature of God’s being.
So think of it this way. Picture a clock with God at the top, at 12, and as we go along, hour by hour, we add another word describing God. So we talk about God as Father, and that gets us to 1 o clock, and we talk about God as omnipotent, and that gets us to 2, and God as gracious to get us to 3, and so on until we get to six o clock, and suddenly even though God is at the top, we’ve actually ended up at the bottom, at 6, which is as far away from 12 as you can possibly get.
You see, in the interest of putting language to the nature of God, we’ve actually in some sense gotten further away from who God is, because even though we can say God is good, God’s goodness is much larger than our finite human understanding of that term. We may talk about God as Father, but there are ways in which God acts as mother, as well. So these are good things, but because our language, what we say, doesn’t do justice to the wideness of God’s mercy and power and grace, we’re in some ways actually getting further away from God the more we say.
This is where the Pseudo-Dionysius and the via negativa, the negative way, come in. What he says, in essence, is that as you continue to go around the clock, you pluck up words and remove them, because they don’t do justice to who God is. Just like we tack words onto God in order to describe God, so to ought we remove the words sometimes and acknowledge that they are insufficient.
And so as you go along the clock face, to seven, and eight, and nine, you pluck words. You say, all right, perhaps God is Father in some ways, but that limits God’s power in others so I’m going to pull up that word. Perhaps God is omnipotent, but God doesn’t intervene all the time, so I’m going to pull up that word. It doesn’t mean God isn’t those things; it just means that the way in which God is those things is larger than the words we use to talk about them. And as you get to ten and eleven you keep pulling words until you have once again reached the top of the clock face, and, there being no words left, you simply sit in silent awe of the God who, in the final analysis is beyond description.
I don’t know if any of this makes sense, and even if it does, if it resonates. Maybe I’m just drawn to this sort of theology because I come across situations so often in ministry that are just absolutely beyond words. I mean, what do you say about the death of a child that will speak meaning into that moment? There is nothing to do but be silent, to wallow in the horrible reverence of such a tragedy. It helps me understand the poet who said that the only proper response to the death of a child is to roll over and play dead. And yet tragedy isn’t the only reason for this kind of silence. I mean, what do you say in response to such a generous gift like the church has received this week? There is nothing to say that will do justice to that kind of generosity. Only grateful silence.
I don’t know if any of this resonates with you. Maybe I’m just drawn to it because as a preacher, as a professional religious person, it feels like I’m completely out of words as I consider the ongoing racial issues we’ve seen boil over in recent days. I talked about this pretty extensively in last Sunday’s sermon, but when I watch a black man choked to death on camera for selling loose cigarettes, choked to death on camera, and then watch the white police officer who killed him not even face trial, I don’t have words. I saw that Matt Miofsky, pastor of the Gathering United Methodist Church in St. Louis and a person familiar to many of you, said on Twitter this week that “As a person who peddles words for a living, I am running out of them.” Perhaps this is the proper response, for sometimes words get in the way. Sometimes we get in the way.
And perhaps this is what John the Baptist was doing when he went into the wilderness to blaze a trail, to cut a path for the in-breaking of Jesus Christ. Perhaps this is what the prophet Isaiah meant when he says to prepare the way of the Lord, to make straight in the desert a highway for our God, to level the ground and make the rough places plain. You cannot do this important work of clearing until you are willing to set down your expectations, to spend less, to stop getting drawn up into the hype machine that is the Official 2014 Christmas Shopping Season. You cannot prepare a way until you are ready to remove some of those things that seem like they are helping you celebrate, but which, in actuality, are flimsy attempts to fill a void in your heart, for that kind of void is only properly filled by God.
Look. I’m about to sit down, but don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that buying presents is bad. We’ve bought too much for our kid this Christmas just like everybody. But I am asking this. At what point are we buying and buying and buying because we are scared of that silence? At what point are we working until there are decorations on the decorations, just so we don’t have to sit in wonder, in awe of the fact that God became human in order to save us from our sin? At what point are we just trying to distract ourselves from our inadequacies, our sin in the first place?
Or, put another way, don’t you think that by spending less this Christmas, you might actually be celebrating a Christmas much more like Jesus would want us to celebrate?

Monday, December 1, 2014

November 30 Sermon: Worship Fully

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)

Isaiah 64:1-9
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Mark 13:24-37
“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
(This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)
It is strange, I know, to come to church the Sunday after Thanksgiving and to see the halls decked and the garland strung and to hear scripture like that which we heard this morning—not gentle Jesus, meek and mild, not silent night, holy night, but a confession of sin by the prophet Isaiah, and a reading from the Gospel of Mark in which the Son of Man comes in clouds with great power and glory, and the angels are sent to gather God’s people from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. This is not the stuff carols are made of.
And yet, you know, with the all that has been going on this week as a result of the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, I sort of feel like this stuff fits. I’m not usually big on the Jesus-coming-with-power-and-Glory, God-breaking-through stuff in the Bible, because honestly, that’s just not what my life looks like. My life looks like quiet moments of grace, an act of forgiveness here, a bit of love there, an occasional minor miracle, maybe, but nothing like this. And, you know, usually, it’s enough, to feel like God is with me as I walk through a difficult time, to feel inspired to forgive, to feel God’s presence as we sing on Sunday morning as a diverse body of Christ.
But sometimes, it isn’t enough. Sometimes, it all just feels so overwhelming you want to pull the comforter over your head and go back to sleep until everything calms down, until the world goes away and you can get back to those quiet moments of grace. I suppose this is what Jesus is talking about when he says to keep awake, because what a privilege that is, to only be bothered when things start to spiral. Sure, we all have our stuff, we all have pain and heartache and the rest, but I’ll speak for myself here: my life isn’t that hard. I don’t fear for my life very often. I don’t wonder where my next meal is coming from or how I’m going to feed my kid. I don’t have the powers of empire breathing down my neck, threatening to kill me simply for what I look like or what I believe.
I am talking, of course, of what it was like to be among the original hearers of this passage in the Gospel of Mark. As best as we can tell, this book was written sometime between 66 and 70AD, at least thirty years after the death of Jesus, during the time of the emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians in Rome and the time of the First Jewish-Roman War. This was a revolt against the Romans by the Jews, who had been subjugated, a war which ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the killing and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Jews. If ever there were a time and a people who needed God to come in power and glory, this was it, and this was them. Think of it: now, in these days, we have two thousand years of Christian history to rely on, to hold us up in difficult times, but those first believers were only thirty years out, just freshmen in the grand scheme of things, and they saw their fellow believers and their family and friends killed, slayed in battle or, under emperor Nero, tortured and publicly killed in what today we would call horrendous acts of terrorism.
These are the conditions that the Gospels were written under. It is important to always, always remember that when we read of the birth of Christ we are not reading of any other birth, detached from the history and the culture of the Jews. The birth of Christ was powerful. It created hope from nothing, deliverance from nothing. It rescued a people who were living under incredible persecution. This is the setting for Christmas: not Black Friday, not post-Thanksgiving-nap, but squalor. Destruction. Torture. Death.
I don’t mean to take the sweetness away from Advent and Christmas; I just want us to realize that Christmas doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens in a context; everything happens in a context. And the context for Jesus’s birth was not a peaceful one. There were difficult events everywhere. You understand why the author of Isaiah 64 says, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence.” You start to understand why the hearers of Mark’s Gospel would so desperately hang on to that promise from Jesus, the promise of his return, and cling so closely to this words that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
In the midst of that kind of suffering, you hold onto anything you can. And so they did. They held onto what seemed like an awfully clear promise, that before any of his followers died, Jesus would return to right every wrong and dry every tear, to deliver them from oppression. If they would just wait, Jesus would return.
And so they waited. And they waited. But justice did not come. And they began to die, one at a time, until it happened faster and faster and still, the promise went unfulfilled. Here they had been promised that justice would come down like mighty waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, but there was only more oppression, more war, more death.
You know, it has been an interesting week to think about this dynamic of a promise so desperately needed and yet unfulfilled. It reminds me of a country that promises freedom and yet included within its founding documents the idea that some people were only worth three-fifths of a human. It reminds me of a movement that promised equal rights for all, but which is not finished.
I remember first hearing about Ferguson, Missouri back in August when Michael Brown was shot and killed following an argument with a police officer, and what I mostly remember at first was that I didn’t think too much of it. You know, I guess, from my perspective, one ought not argue with police officers. That seems pretty easy.
It was only when I started listening to my African-American friends and colleagues that I started to pay close attention, and when I did, I heard people I dearly loved and cared for who were saying things that just didn’t resonate with me, that did not make much sense to me, and yet it seemed like I was hearing much of the same message again and again: Ferguson matters. What has happened is important, because the dynamics involved are larger than this one incident, larger than the security footage that showed Michael Brown before he was killed, larger than this one deal. At some point, when such a large group of people says versions of the same thing, you can either choose to ignore what they are saying and stick with what you know, or you can decide that you actually don’t know everything, that your perspective is not the only one, and you can choose to listen.
And so I want to acknowledge the problems with the fact that I am a white person speaking about this, because I am not someone who has been discriminated against because of my skin. In fact, in all honesty, I’d rather not be preaching about this stuff at all. I know that when I talk about controversial issues from the pulpit, it upsets some people. I know some people think that a preacher should never, ever talk about anything that could possibly be considered political. And yet when I read about Jesus coming with power and glory to deliver a people, I come to the conclusion that Jesus is political, and to be faithful is to listen and respond, even when it makes me, even when it makes us uncomfortable.
I want to acknowledge one more thing, which is that we are a reasonably multicultural congregation. You don’t find a lot of churches that have the kind of diversity we have, and much of the reason for this is that it is not easy to be a diverse body. It is much easier to discuss racially charged topics in a room where you know that everybody is going to agree with you. And yet this stuff is so very important, because if we believe that a) all people, no matter their color, are children of God, and b) a large group of people finds itself on the receiving end of prejudice, all of us—all of us—have a responsibility to listen, to process, and respond. I can’t just say, “oh, it’s all an overreaction,” just because I don’t understand what it is like to be black. It may be my first response, but it isn’t a particularly Christian response, because if I read anything about how we are to treat one another in the Bible, it is that we are all family, and when one part suffers, we are all implicated. Maybe you don’t understand what it is like to experience that kind of oppression. But so what? Since when did we start thinking that understanding had to come before love?
I may not understand what it is like to face that kind of racism, but I am so grateful for those who have told their stories this week. I read the story of a black comedian who talked about the way he intentionally thinks about every single move he makes when he walks into a convenience store, just in case something goes wrong and people are looking for someone to blame. I read about mothers of black sons who have new worries about releasing their sons into the world; I (reed) read about and listen to black men—some of whom are very close friends of mine, people who I deeply admire and respect and hold in great esteem for the brave ways they face the world and speak truth in love—I’ve heard some of them talk about being absolutely terrified in the wake of the grand jury’s decision. Terrified.
We can distract ourselves by only talking about the looting and rioting, which of course is evil. Of course it is wrong. But friends, if we don’t take seriously the terror of our sisters and brothers in Christ, the problem isn’t with terrified ones. It is with the rest of us. The numbers are clear: black men are seven times as likely as white men to spend time in prison, three times as likely to be shot by law enforcement, two and a half times as likely to be sentenced to death. Here in Georgia, non-Hispanic blacks make up 31% of the population but are 58% of the incarcerated population. People of color are more likely than whites to see jail time for identical crimes, are more likely than whites to be sent to adult prison for crimes committed as juveniles, have a much higher arrest rate for drug use, despite being no more likely to sell or use illegal drugs than whites, and receive, on average, prison sentences that are 10% longer than whites for the exact same crimes. Friends, if we don’t look at the dynamics involved and see a clear problem—not a police problem, per se, but an all of us problem—we aren’t looking! This is the very definition of oppression: the exercise of authority and power in an unjust manner.
I’ll be honest, when I look at the news and think about the size of this problem, I don’t know what to do. It just all seems so overwhelming, so intractable, so . . .  hopeless. And yet hopelessness is precisely the environment Jesus was born into. This is who Jesus is, and the kind of world Jesus has come to redeem.
Jesus does not come in a sterile hospital in the maternity ward. He comes in the muck and the mess. He isn’t born in a Christmas card, in some idealized version of the story, on the kind of Christmas we wish we could have. He was born in the real world, where we still deal with racism, where we engage in relationships across racial and socioeconomic lines, where we still have struggles and problems and you can’t even go to church to get away from it all. That’s where Jesus is born, and thank goodness, because that is where we live.
In the final analysis, this is what it means to worship fully: to acknowledge that our hope does not come from just from human progress. It doesn’t come from movements, divorced from the work of God. No, our hope comes from the Lord, who created Heaven and earth and who promises us that we will never be left alone. This isn’t to say, as some as argued, that we ought not work so that all people may experience that love. It doesn’t mean, as some narrow corners of the church have said, that we ought to leave this up to God, as if it is God’s problem, as if we are devoid of any responsibility.
To worship fully is to actively wait in the promise of hope, even when its fulfilment is delayed longer than we wish, longer than we were promised. To worship fully is to work while we wait, to do the work of Christmas, and allow Jesus to be born in the kinds of places that Jesus is always born: in difficult circumstances, among intractable problems, in oppression and hopelessness. It is in this context that Jesus comes in power and glory, and thanks be to God for that.
Let me just say this. This is all so heartbreaking and complex that I don’t even know what to tell you to do. The dynamics of racism and distrust and oppression seem so much larger than any one of us can deal with, let alone sum up in a sermon. I don’t even understand all of it, to be honest.
I don’t have the answer to the festering wounds of racism, of hate, of fear, but if Jesus is any guide, can I suggest that at least part of the answer may be to keep awake so that we may hear the voice of the oppressed, for it was among the oppressed that Jesus was born? Can I suggest that this Christmas, you allow the God of the oppressed to enter the shabby stable of your heart, even if—and maybe especially if—it seems like a place so barren that only farm animals would go there to bed and feed?
For we read in scripture that in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then, then we will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. And thanks be to God. Amen.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Three Rules for Christian Communication

The events of the last twenty-four hours has me thinking about the ways Christians engage in the world: particularly the way we speak. In difficult situations, what should we say? How should we interact? What role does social media play in all of this?

I realize that the questions I ask myself when participating in church business meetings apply beyond the church setting. As Christians, we are called to speak truth in love, but how can we do that? How can we talk in ways that honor Paul's words in Romans 12:2: "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind?"

When deciding what to say--or if to speak at all--here are three guiding principles.
  • 1. Is it true? Is the thing I am saying true (as opposed to "truthy")? Can I back up my speech with facts, actions, deeply-held beliefs? If there is legitimate question about the facts behind my speech (even when that speech is opinion speech), it ought not be spoken. I give my statements credibility, just like credible statements reflect positively on me. When I speak things that prove to be untrue, I damage my trustworthiness and I reflect poorly on God and God's church. Snopes is your friend! Every time you spread a rumor that isn't true, truth is degraded.
  • 2. Is it kind? Notice the question is not, "Is it nice?." Niceness is pleasantness, and it can lead to conflict-avoidance. We don't always need to be pleasant, and conflict--intentionally used--can lead to growth. Kindness is a more theological way of being. It reflects that you are made in the image of God, just as I am. I can speak difficult truths kindly, with a reverence for who you are and Whose you are.
  • 3. Is it helpful? We all know people with no filter: the kind of folk who say, "Well, that's just who I am: I say what's on my mind." And not every thought--true, though it might be--is helpful. One of the perils of social media is assuming that everybody wants to know everything you think about everything. That's just not true. Most of your thoughts should stay in your head! Judging helpfulness leads to speech that is directed towards a goal. It need not be a lofty goal; you may just think I need a laugh. And what you are saying may be true! But not all true speech is helpful, at least in every instance. If you see me having just stubbed my toe, that's probably not the time to remind me that I need to lose a few pounds. And speaking with people in deep grief is not the best time to tell people you think they are wrong.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it has helped me discern what to say, and when.

What about you? What questions do you ask yourself before speaking as a Christian? What guidelines do you use?

Monday, November 17, 2014

November 16 Sermon

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here).
Matthew 25:14-30
“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Well, we are in the second part of a little two week series in which we are talking about the end of time, which may sound like a strange thing to talk about, but popular culture is clearly infatuated with it. And last week we talked about the silliness of the idea that God would leave people behind. God’s promise to us is presence, being present with us. And we talked a little bit about what to do in the meantime, which is to say that we are not supposed to idly wait.
You should know that I do not like to wait. There are few things I despise more than waiting in line. In the grocery store I am constantly eyeing the next register to monitor how fast it is moving. I just don’t wait well. And to be honest, I don’t know of a lot of people who do. One of the things about the world these days is that it seems to move faster than ever, and work can follow you everywhere, so there’s always an email to return, a Facebook status to update, a text to send, a phone call to make. And so when the power goes out, or my phone runs out of juice, I just about don’t know what to do. It can make a person crazy, having to wait like that, and yet, of course, this is what we are called to do as Christians. We believe that one day, Christ will dry every tear, stop every hurt, right every wrong; we’re just waiting for it to happen. But we aren’t separate from that hope, because as we wait, we are to do the work of love. We are to serve God and serve others, so that Christ can break into and breathe hope into even the most hopeless situations, as God works through us.
So it is that in this morning’s scripture lesson, which shows up in the Gospel of Matthew just after the one we read last week, Jesus talks to us about that waiting, about what we do in the meantime, which in the final analysis is all the time we’ve got.
Like he does so often, instead of just telling us, he shares a parable, a story. He says, a wealthy man was headed out of town on a great journey, so he called his workers together—slaves, in the words of this ancient story—and says to them, I’m leaving. I need you to care for things while I am gone. And so he gives them a total of eight talents, which was a certain amount of money back then. To the worker he trusted the most, he gave five talents, to the next, two talents, and to the one he trusted the least, one, which is still a hefty sum of money. A talent, as best as we can tell, was an amount of money equal to the salary you’d earn from twenty years of working. So this isn’t a nickel and dime deal. This is the real thing. This is the kind of stuff you and I are entrusted with while we wait.
And the workers go about their lives, tending to the field, watching the man’s property, and eventually he comes back and calls the workers together and says, all right, I’m back, give me your report.
And the worker who received five talents says, “Master, I took the five talents you gave me and I have made five more.” Now, I think that’s a pretty nice return, 100%, and the wealthy man seems to agree, and he says, “Well done. I have entrusted you with this and you have delivered, so I will put you in charge of many more things.”
And the second worker comes and the same thing happens. “You gave me two talents and I made two more,” and the wealthy man says “Well done. I have entrusted you with this and you have delivered, so I will put you in charge of many more things.”
And then the last worker comes forward, sort of fearfully, sheepishly, and he says, “You know, I’ve seen what kind of guy you are. You harvest things you didn’t plant, you exceed the boundaries of your property line, so I figured the best thing to do would be to play it safe, to dig a hole, hide the whole thing in the ground, so at least you couldn’t get onto me for losing your money.”
And the wealthy man is enraged, and he says, “I see how it is. I see what you think I am. And if I really am that way, don’t you think you should have at least taken it to the bank to see what kind of interest you could get?” And he strips the guy of everything he has, takes away his title and his money and his responsibility and throws him out. Just tosses him out the gate.
I want to stop here and acknowledge that this is a difficult story. There are plenty of landmines within it that we need to contain, carefully, before we can get into the meat of the lesson of the story. First, this story has been used countless times as a way for well-dressed prosperity Gospel preachers to say, “give your money to the church and God will bless you financially.” And that’s not it at all. This is not a story about getting rich; notice that the wealthy man doesn’t give his slaves any of the money. He just gives them more responsibility.
I think there’s also something we need to say about how harsh this story is. You see, those of us in what we call the mainline tradition like to sometimes take the Bible and make it nice and cute and sweet. We like to knock the rough corners off of the Bible and sand it down until it resembles something nice and pretty, and that’s well and good until you realize that you’ve sanded it so finely and created a surface so shiny that when you look at it, you see your own reflection rather than God’s. So I think we need to acknowledge that this stuff is a little harsh, and kind of learn to live with it, because the message of God isn’t always easy. It is always loving, and it is always gracious, but it isn’t always easy.
I mean, I am sure it wouldn’t have been easy to have been the first worker, the one who was trusted with five talents. For one, that’s a hefty sum. That’s a lot of pressure. But it must have been absolutely terrifying to invest all of it. It’s not that he kept three in stable value funds and put two in domestic stocks. He put it all on the line, every bit.
In some ways, you know, I have to think that what the two workers did—the one with the five and the one with the two—I think that’s one of the most difficult things you can do. Not just the work of investing—though it was a lot of work—but making a decision to trust. To say, you know God has given me this. I intend to use it for the good of the kingdom. I’m not going to keep it as it is. I’m not going to live in fear. I’m going to use it. After all, isn’t the prayer of “use me, O God,” the most powerful prayer, the most ultimate desire of each of us? Isn’t that what we want more than anything else: to be seen as worthy in the eyes of God, to be used for God’s purposes, whatever that means for you?
I like that message. It’s difficult, but I like it, because, of course, one of the central messages of the whole Bible is this: do not fear. Do not fear. We know how the story is going to end, and maybe we have things we need to do in the meantime, but it’s not like we’re in the dark about whether God is going to win. God will triumph. All the pains of the world will go away: all the heartache, all the hurt, all the tears. This is the message of the Bible. Love wins.
And I’ve got to be honest. One of the reasons I like that message so much is that boy, do I need to hear it. Again and again and again. There is so much out there that wants to control us by fear, because fear is one of the most powerful forces in the whole world. It is tempting to give into it now and again, to say, you know, this is too scary. I am going to sit this one out. And when you think of it that way, well, I don’t know about you but I have a little sympathy for the third worker, the one who dug and buried and delivered to his boss 100% of what had been entrusted to him. Not only has he protected the man’s significant asset, but he’s also remarkably honest when the man asks him what he was thinking. “Master,” he says, “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was . . . afraid.”
It is fear that drives him. Fear. And it is fear that keeps him from being used as an instrument of God, because he is afraid. And what a pity, to be given the opportunity to be used by God and then to just . . . pass!
I mean, this being a story about the nature of God, not just some fable about how to invest your money, we shouldn’t be surprised at all that the first two workers double their investments! If I’ve learned anything through my time in ministry, it is that God will always use us when we offer ourselves as a holy and living sacrifice: maybe not in the way we’d like, and in this case not with a financial reward but with more responsibility, which is not exactly what those of us who have lived long faithful lives are necessarily looking for as a reward! But God always rewards those who take seriously God’s promises, rewards those who trust. And lest you think that trust is something you either do or don’t, let’s be clear that one thing this story tells us is that we have to choose to trust. Not blindly, of course, but purposefully, because you don’t go off and invest five talents, what amounts to 100 years worth of income, without making the decision to trust.
And yet the third worker is so bound by fear that cannot not imagine the good that can be done in God’s kingdom with that kind of wealth. He’s so bound up that he can’t even see the value of what he’s been given, can’t even hear God’s voice calling him to reinvest, to constantly reinvest, to take what he has been given and use it for the glory of God.
It is fear the drives him, that sits in front of his face and blinds him to possibility, for, of course, fear is the enemy of imagination. This guy has forgotten that scripture tells us, again and again, that God is more powerful than our pain and our difficulty and that in the end, God will win. Maybe that win doesn’t look like you expected. Maybe it will enlarge your territory, give you new responsibility, pluck you up out of your comfort zone and deposit you in a place you barely recognize with people you don’t know so that you can make good on God’s investment in you.
In the end, the God who loves us will never leave us, and you can bury that if you like or you can take it to the bank, your choice.
I will end with this. Let’s bring this out of the stratosphere and set it down on the altar next to the cornucopia. I’d challenge anybody who doesn’t believe in miracles to sit down with me and review all that has happened in this congregation on this corner over the last twelve months. I was looking out last week at the young adults—all crammed in a pew in the middle of the sanctuary—and remembering only or two of them has been here longer than a year. That’s a miracle. You have been so successful in reaching out to new people in new ways that we’ve welcomed nearly fifty new people into membership this year, and now I’ve got to hire somebody to help keep up with our children and families. That’s a miracle. We’re reaching out to new people in new ways, including the fact that you’ve already fed 10,000 kids through Stop Hunger Now and raised enough money through the pumpkin patch to feed 22,732 more. That’s a miracle. But these miracles have not been pulled out of thin air. They have come about because you—those who have been here for decades and those of you who have been here for a few weeks—all of you have been willing to invest, to trust God, to dream dreams, to imagine what God might do.
And now that we’re seeing some return on our investment—God’s investment, really—we’ve got a choice. We can say, all right, this is great, but God is calling us to more because God always blesses faithfulness, because God always says yes to the prayer of “Use me, O God.”
Or we can say, eh, that’s good enough. This is just about all the growth and change I’m comfortable with, and besides, you never know what the Bishop’s going to do. Best to bury what we’ve got so at least we don’t have to worry about losing our hard-earned church.

“For to all those who have,” Jesus says, “more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

Monday, November 10, 2014

November 9 Sermon

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)

Matthew 25:1-13
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
For the next two weeks we will be talking about the end of things, which may be a strange thing to talk about, but it is certainly a popular thing these days. Think for a moment about the word “apocalyptic.” What comes to mind? I think it is instructive that with a very few exceptions, it was not until humanity created the ability to annihilate itself with nuclear weapons that apocalyptic fiction rose to prominence as a genre. Think of classics like A Canticle for Leibowitz, or more modern works like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. You will certainly find apocalyptic themes in the Hunger Games books. And the end of things being a particularly compelling theme, there are more movies on this topic than I can count. In fact, let me show you these. You may not be able to see them, but later you can come see them in my office where they are prominently displayed. They are Bobbleheads of Michonne and Rick Grimes, two characters from one of my favorite television shows, the Walking Dead, which is a program centered on the idea of a zombie apocalypse.
You can’t get away from this kind of thing, and I get it; we live in a strange time technologically, culturally, religiously. If you’ve been in the church for decades you’ll note that the nature of the church is changing very quickly, shrinking in some places, losing much of what it has once been. So it is natural to gravitate to stories about the end of things, natural to look for guidance in the Bible about how this will all end. I think that’s a good thing. I wish people would look to the Bible when they made most of their decisions.
The problem is this. This focus on being left behind—the version of the end of things you read about in novels and see in movies—that version is not based in truth. It takes a few verses in what is a very large book and twists them to fit a system of belief that doesn’t match up with who Jesus was, who Jesus is. And sometimes it gets played as harmless entertainment, just a way to spend a couple of hours, but it is insidious, because it hides behind claims of being fiction while at the same time claiming to be Biblical. It claims to be Christian. And it really just isn’t.
For one thing, if you are newer to the faith, you may be surprised to know that this idea that people would be plucked up while others would be left behind to face supernatural forces—this is an idea that has really only existed as an idea for less than two hundred years. Jesus was around two thousand years ago, and he didn’t mention it. None of the Biblical writers mentioned it. Martin Luther never mentioned it. This idea stems from a misunderstanding of the book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible, and a small handful of verses throughout the New Testament.
So you should know that this stuff wasn’t even really an idea until it was dreamed up in the early eighteenth century by a couple of Puritan ministers named Increase and Cotton Mather whose other claim to fame  is that they are widely understood to have laid the groundwork that led to the Salem Witch trials. The word “rapture” simply does not exist in the Bible. And the book of Revelation, which so many people—including the people who wrote the popular Left Behind books—have turned into some sort of map of how the end of times is going to happen, that book isn’t a warning. It isn’t a map. It’s a love letter. It’s a book of worship. It is like Communion: a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. It uses symbolism because we worship a God who is bigger than our literal language. Revelation is a reminder that God is with us always, that life can be difficult and bad, terrible things can happen, but that all the suffering, all the evil, all the problems of the world are no match for God. It’s not about God leaving us behind. It’s about God being with us always.
Now, I don’t ascribe to the philosophy that a preacher ought to always show his or her work—you know, let me throw all these Greek words at you to show you how smart I am or whatever—but looking at the language this was written in is helpful, and the word we talk about sometimes in the church is parousia. Parousia. It means the coming of Christ to save us from all the difficult things in life, all the pain. And the Greek word parousia is most accurately translated as “presence.” Here we are focused on being Left Behind and the very word the Bible uses means Christ’s presence with us. That kind of misunderstanding would be ridiculously laughable if it weren’t real.
Christ will be present with us. You know, I may sometimes get to worrying about the state of things, but we are promised in scripture that this all ends well! One day, we read in scripture, Jesus will right every wrong, dry every tear, and justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!
So what I want to do with the rest of my time this morning is talk about the scripture that Anna read this morning and point out some things we can learn about the end of things. And then next week, we’ll talk about what God wants us to do while we wait.
In this morning’s scripture lesson, we find Jesus, and the authorities are onto him. He doesn’t have much time left, and so he launches into this long set of stories and teachings about how to be faithful. You know, in the months before my grandfather passed away, we knew it wouldn’t be long, so we started to gather more often for meals as an extended family, at these long tables because there are dozens of us, and we’d put Papaw at the head of the table and leave the other end open. And after dinner, my grandfather would sort of pat himself on the belly, and we knew he was done eating and it was time, so somebody would set up a video camera at the far end of the table and we’d ask him to remind us about stories we’d heard him tell—about growing up in coal country in Arkansas, about leaving his family as a child to find work, about his time in the War. And because he also knew he was nearing the end of his life, he wanted to share those stories with us, so that they would become a part of us. They weren’t just warnings, and they weren’t about how he was mad at us. They were stories he told us because he loved us, because when we saw him in those stories, and when we carried those stories with us, a part of who he was would remain with us.
And this is how I think it was with Jesus. The stories he tells can sound harsh—perhaps you have heard the one about cursing the poor old fig tree. But they aren’t about being upset with us any more than the end of things is about God leaving us once and for all, which of course it isn’t. They’re about love, about sharing a piece of himself with the disciples, and through scripture, with us. And so he tells the disciple a story.
Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took extra flasks of oil with them. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and fell asleep. But in the middle of the night, there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come to meet him!” And so they all got up and got their lamps ready, but the five that didn’t have extra oil saw their lamps going out. Those five had to go to the store—in the middle of the night, as if Walmart was around back then—and while they were gone, the bridegroom came. The half that were ready went to the wedding banquet. The half that weren’t missed the boat.
And he ends the story this way: keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
I mean, it does sound a little ominous. I get why people think of this stuff as harsh. Keep awake. If you aren’t paying attention, you may miss the coming of Jesus. And, to be clear, it’s one of those mysteries of faith that we don’t understand, but we do believe we worship a God who will wipe every tear, to right every wrong. When we talk about the end of things, this is what we are talking about.
What gets me, though, is that there is this whole industry of religious broadcasting and Christian novels that either take the events of the day and try to hammer them into something that looks like the symbolism we see in the book of Revelation or they create a story out of symbols and make it sound like it is Christian theology, when the whole point of this story is that you can’t anticipate when Christ will break through! You can’t look to the stars or whatever. You can’t count the number of times a word appears in the Bible and figure it out. There’s no use looking for some sort of Bible code. Christ comes in unexpected ways and in unexpected times. When Jesus says you know neither the day nor the hour, he doesn’t mean that it’s going to be some time in September. He means that the business of trying to game the system is completely unscriptural. It’s wrong. It keeps you from faithfully following Jesus, from faithfully showing love all the time, not just in front of the judge or whatever.
There is this episode of the Simpsons I love—I wonder when the last time you had a pastor who quoted the Walking Dead and the Simpsons in the same sermon—but it is an episode called Homer the Heretic, in which Homer Simspon gets tired of being bored every week in church, which I know is something none of you struggle with. And so he creates his own religion based on his own personal tastes. And his daughter Lisa sees him walking in the back yard dressed like a monk, and she says, “Dad, why are you dedicating your life to blasphemy?” And Home looks at her reassuringly and says, “Don’t worry, sweetheart. If I’m wrong, I’ll recant on my deathbed.”
It is silly, but how many people act like that, in one manner or another? How many people use Christian faith as a sort of last-ditch life-insurance policy, instead of actually living it? It takes the pressure off of us, for sure; it turns religion into something you can kind of just think in your mind, rather than doing the things that Jesus tells us to do: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless, welcoming the stranger, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Yes, we believe that one day, there will be no more sickness, no more hunger, for Christ will break through and, in the words of Julian of Norwich, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Yes, in the Communion liturgy, the congregation acknowledges that “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again,” that this is the great mystery of faith, but this isn’t a threat; it’s a promise! It is a promise of hope, and love. It is the promise of presence.
And, sure, it can be difficult to wait. It can be difficult to say, here I have lived my whole life trying to be faithful and it hasn’t cured my sadness, hasn’t cured my pain, hasn’t cured the fact that I keep losing people I love. But the Christian faith is not about doing good so that you can be rewarded. If it were, Mother Teresa wouldn’t have experienced so much doubt. Martin Luther King wouldn’t have been martyred. Jesus wouldn’t have been crucified.
The Christian faith isn’t about avoiding pain. It is about hope, about Resurrection, about acknowledging that the worst thing is never the last thing, which means there is something greater and more powerful than pain. And, yes, following Christ is about waiting patiently, not idly, but patiently, and productively, for the promises of God to continue to born.
When you look at it that way, this business about being ready because you do not know the day or the hour—that’s not a threat. It’s a promise. Being ready isn’t about crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s in case Jesus shows up to check your papers. It’s about sharing love in the meantime. It’s about the meantime. For if you love, you will have love in abundance, enough to fill your flask and your lamp and maybe even enough to share. You won’t run out, because if you love, you will have love.

Now, next week, we’ll talk more about what that means, about how we wait. But, you know, in the meantime, keep sharing love. In the meantime, let us be the presence of Christ for others. Let us keep our lamps burning, for thanks be to God, this isn’t a story about scaring anybody into belief, but about shining light while we wait. In the name of the Creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, October 27, 2014

October 26 Sermon

Matthew 22:34-40
34When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
What a beautiful day to celebrate all that God is doing through North Decatur United Methodist Church. I have been thinking, especially this week, about all that has happened since this time last year. And since this is Consecration Sunday, the day we dedicate ourselves anew to the work of God through North Decatur United Methodist Church, I want to spend some time this morning the state of the church, but I want to frame it in the scriptures, which is a good a place to start as any I think, and this morning, we see the Pharisees, the teachers of the law, asking Jesus an important question.
The Pharisees, the teachers of the law, went up to Jesus trying to entrap him, saying, which commandment is the greatest? This wasn’t an innocent question; the teaching at the time was that all the laws were equal, so they were trying to get him to perjure himself, to say something heretical so that they had ammunition against him.
And his answer was this: the first greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind. The second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. And here’s the kicker. He isn’t saying, get to a place where you love God and then love your neighbor. He is saying, you can’t separate the two. You can’t properly do one without the other.
In fact, I love the language he uses. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. It’s probably my favorite use of a verb in all of scripture. All the Bible, the whole doorstop of a book, the whole thing hangs on these two hooks: loving God with all you’ve got, and loving your neighbor as much as you love yourself. It means you can’t do this stuff halfway--God wants all your heart and soul and mind, and it means you can’t do it alone.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. That’s the test. Oh, that’s not to say that these are the only two hooks. The church struggles with this sometimes and says oh, if it hangs on any hook at all, let’s get the church involved. There are plenty of hooks, but you knew that already. There’s the hook of “We have always done it this way,” which is a particularly strong hook, until you try to imagine Jesus saying something like “The greatest commandment is this: do it the way you’ve always done it. On this commandment hangs all the law and the prophets.”
There is the hook of “this won’t upset anybody,” as if the way to truly love one another is to keep everything level, try to keep the peace at all costs, remove all the calories from faith so that what we have to offer is a fat-free version of Jesus, tasteless, bland, empty.
There are plenty of hooks. Those are just a couple. But the strongest hooks—the ones that hold everything else—are these: love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Everything else hangs on these. And if that’s the whole ball game, North Decatur, well, let’s just say I think you are doing pretty well. We’re not perfect, and we’ve got a ways to go, but there is much to celebrate, so let’s do that.
I’ve got to tell you, I have found myself getting a little emotional about all that God is doing here at North Decatur United Methodist Church. That’s not really me, but when you consider the great works of God, I don’t know how you act any other way. And the gift to me, as a pastor, is that you are the most willing group of people I’ve ever met. You are willing to do, to try, to give. Even before I was appointed here last June, I knew you were a special group of people, but I didn’t really quite understand until the church council made the difficult decision to totally redo our administrative structure. Every time I talked to you about this, you all kept saying the same thing: let’s try it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.
I mean, who says that?! Who in the church is so willing to try new things they say something like that? And so you made the brave decision to try something new. It may seem like a strange thing to celebrate the way that the administrative structure of the church works, but because of the decision you made to change the way we do business, instead of sitting in meetings all day, which I can tell you after spending all of yesterday in Athens, is a miserable way to spend a day, you decided to be about making Disciples!
And my goodness, has it borne fruit. I just want to spend a little time talking about the incredible things that have happened in the last year, because God is at work here in North Decatur United Methodist Church.
The most obvious change, I think is that the worship attendance here at North Decatur has increased phenomenally. That’s because of you. It is because you place priority on being here, being faithful every week. I pay close attention to this sort of thing and we’re averaging 123 people every Sunday. Thanks to your faithfulness and the dedication of our incredible Director of Worship and Arts, the choir is busting at the seams. We hear incredibly beautiful music every week. We’ve seen four baptisms in the past year, with another one coming up in a couple of weeks. The diversity I see on Sunday mornings just nearly brings me to tears, because this is what the church is supposed to be! It is supposed to be a place where we come together, not because we are all the same, but because we are all different, because we have things to learn from one another, because you can’t properly love God without loving your neighbor! And you have been incredibly hospitable as we have welcomed new people into the life of this church. Would you believe that when you include children, we have welcomed forty-two new members in the last twelve months?! Forty-two! God is good! And you are faithful.
All of this growth has not happened overnight, and it’s not been easy. It’s wonderful, but not easy, and yet somehow, North Decatur, you make it look natural! We’ve started five new Sunday school classes this year. Four! What on earth?! Who does that? There’s a new class for young families, a new class for young adults, a new in-depth class we’re calling the Wesley class, and we’ve restarted Sunday school for youth. Plus, we are so overrun with children that we’ve had to divide up the Sunday school class for kids into two different classes! We have the most incredible dedicated teachers, which it takes to run this kind of program. If you don’t have a Sunday school class yet, let’s talk, because there is one waiting for you! And would you believe that a year ago, the Burson building at the back of the campus sat empty all week long—we never used it. But now, on Sunday mornings, the young adults meet in the lobby for Sunday school and the youth meet with Mike Anderson and Ray Cowan in the basement, on Friday evenings, Narcotics Anonymous hosts a group in the lobby, and the preschool uses one of the rooms upstairs for their new Sandbox program which encourages creativity in kids and helps them love learning. If you had told me a year ago the church’s preschool would have been in a position to do that kind of thing I would have said you were crazy. But because our director, Emily Howard, and our assistant director, Julie Seckman, and the preschool board are so incredibly talented, we’re teaching kids about God’s love every single day.
This kind of growth doesn’t happen accidentally. It happens because God is good and you are faithful. It happens because you take seriously God’s call to care for children, to be the church that welcomes and loves children, and we are so fortunate to have been given the gift of the Rev. Mary Gene Lee. I don’t know if you knew this, and she’ll be upset with me for saying so, but Mary Gene has been working with us for the last several months for … free. Here we have one of the preeminent Christian educators of children in the country working with us to put together a children’s ministry program for us and she has done it for free. But it is time we put our money where our mouths are, which is why we’re excited to add new staffing in this area come January, because there are more children out there, more families who need the kind of love that is unique to this place, the kind of love that is produced when you meld the love of God and the love of neighbor.
North Decatur, you are welcoming new people into relationship with Jesus Christ. It is incredible to watch. But you aren’t just welcoming people here. You are reaching out in love, just like you always have. You have always taken God’s mission seriously, but you’ve been up to so much this year that I don’t know what to do other than just list it.
In the last year, you served the homeless at Trinity Table, fed the men at Trinity House, purchased and packaged means for 11,428 kids through Stop Hunger Now, made 3600 sandwiches for the Open Door Community, hosted a luncheon at Decatur Christian Towers, sent expressions of God’s love across the world through Operation Shoebox, did extensive renovation on the home of a senior during Martin Luther King weekend, supported Hagar’s House with love and food and gifts, brought tons of food for Decatur Emergency Assistance Ministry and the North Decatur food pantry, hosted a free dinner and Vacation Bible School for families in the area, sat in the wind and the rain and sold over $11,000 worth of pumpkins with another week to go, and I could go on but I think I’d need a nap. And maybe you will recall that I mentioned last week about our apportionments, about how we spend the first 10% of the church’s budget, and then some, on missional giving to the global church and humanitarian projects all over the world. Thanks to the diligent work of the church council and Bob Stubbs in particular, on Friday, just the day before yesterday, we sent $4800 to the North Georgia conference which means that even though October is not over yet, we’ve already paid 100% of our apportionments for the year. I think you deserve a round of applause for that. In fact, because we’ve paid our apportionments, we’ve decided that instead of keeping this year’s Christmas Eve offering, we’re going to give it away. Since it is Jesus’s birthday, we’re going to give him a present. Half of the offering will go to Decatur Cooperative Ministries for ministry around the corner, and the other half will go to the United Methodist Church’s work eradicating malaria and ebola. God’s faithfulness and your giving have led us to this point.
I want you to know that in working on this sermon I made a list of all the things I am excited about that you have done in the last year, and I quite simply don’t have time to go into all of them. From the renewed relationship with the Candler School of Theology and our wonderful pastoral residents, to the inclusion of young people in leadership, to the incredible minister of visitation we have in Janet Faust, to the incredible work of our kitchen angels, to the fact that some time in the next two weeks we expect a temporary electric fence to be put around the gulch in front of the Burson Building as a company that does this sort of thing brings a herd of sheep to clear that area so that we can start putting effort into the Lottie Hawks prayer garden. I could go on. I don’t have time.  None of this—none of it—would have happened without your understanding of the necessity of melding love of God with love of neighbor. So, in the final analysis, perhaps there is no group of people in the great state of Georgia who needs to hear this sermon any less than you do.

But now is not the time to rest on our laurels. There are others who desperately need you to share with them God’s grace and your love. For it is the core of Christian faith that God first loved us, that God loves us still and loves us so much that death will not win—and it is our responsibility to respond to that love by loving God and loving our neighbors. There’s power in that kind of witness, that kind of giving your whole self, that kind of surrender. Dear friends, I can’t wait to see what God will continue to do in you and through you in the next year. How faithful you are. How good God is. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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