Monday, February 9, 2015

Feb 8 Sermon: "Conclusive Evidence that Jesus was an Introvert, and Other Things that Make the Pastor Feel Better About Himself"

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
Mark 1:29-39
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
I haven’t seen a lot of literature about this, so I don’t have statistics to back it up, but it is my experience that one of the biggest barriers the church has in reaching out to new people is that coming to church for the first time can be terrifying, especially for introverts. Some estimates suggest that up to half of the population in the United States identifies as introverted, which is to say that they get energy from being alone and can become quickly overwhelmed in crowds. I’ve been reading a lot of stuff lately about welcoming new people to church, and the number one thing that apparently turns people off is the passing of the peace, the time when we stand and greet one another. Especially for people who are more introverted, this time can be terrifying, and when I am in unfamiliar church worship services, I have been known to spend the first two-thirds of the worship service dreading the passing of the peace. I know that sounds ridiculous, at least to the extraverts in the room, but it is true. In fact, you will notice that we took it out this week; we aren’t doing the passing of the peace. I still think it is important to do, I still want to do it occasionally, but I also think it is important to switch things around a bit and give the introverts, which is half of us, a little bit of a break.
Just so we are clear: my name is Dalton and I am an introvert. I’ve mentioned this in the pulpit before, but I get my energy from being alone. Big crowds totally freak me out. If there is a Hell, it is going to look like a crowded room full of people, and it would be just my luck that I get there just in time for the passing of the peace. And so I am particularly grateful for this morning’s scripture lesson, in which Jesus goes off to the desert alone. He does this often, and in my mind, it is proof enough that Jesus was an introvert. As you will see in this morning’s sermon title, this fact certainly makes me feel better about myself, because it is the case that American culture privileges extraversion. The quiet kid is rarely the popular kid. The successful executive is the outgoing executive. And so to my fellow introverts, I say this: when the extraverts lay claim to the popular crowd and the successful crowd and the powerful crowd, you just remind them that they may have most of the powerful leaders in the world, but we have Jesus.
Now, I know that in a lot of ways that’s not helpful. The last thing we need is another label to divide us, and even this one only helps to a certain extent. But I do think this story has something to teach us. There is something to be said for going off alone every once in a while. Notice I didn’t say there is something to be said for sitting in the corner hunched over your smartphone like Quasimodo. Maybe that’s a survival mechanism when you’re stuck in a room full of people, but it isn’t productive. It doesn’t do what going off alone can do.
This story has something to teach us, because there’s something to be said for quiet, and if there is any currency that is especially rare, especially valuable these days, it is quiet. I mean, think about it. When is the last time you experienced real quiet, real stillness? When is the last time you found yourself in the wilderness, with no sounds but the birds overhead and the soft pad of your footsteps below?  I wish I were exaggerating, but most days it feels like I can’t go twelve seconds without looking at my phone. The crazy thing is that I am somebody who craves silence! It is not like I am afraid of it—I crave it! If I don’t get enough time by myself, I get especially cranky, which come to think of it explains a lot! And yet even as someone who need to balance time with people with time alone, I seem to be terrible at making time to be alone and quiet. There’s always something to be done, somebody to visit, a room to clean, an email to send, an appointment to make, a meal to cook, a child to care for. I remember reading about something that President Nixon said back in the mid-50’s when he and President Eisenhower were running for reelection, saying that if the country would just reelect Eisenhower for another term, we’d see a 32-hour work week in the not-too-distant-future. We’d be people of leisure, and we’d have so much free time we’d have to search for things to do!
And yet here we are in 2015, and your calendar probably looks like mine. Things on top of things on top of things. Work weeks that drag into family time. Personal responsibilities that bleed into the wee hours of the morning. Technology was supposed to male our lives easier, to give us a four day work week, and yet if I am honest, there are days I have a real temptation to roll down the window and throw my phone into the intersection of Church Street and North Decatur Road.
I remember growing up with three younger siblings, and my mom would have one of those big desk calendars taped to the front of the refrigerator, and each of the four kids would be represented by a different color pen, so that she knew who to take to soccer practice and who to take to afterschool events and who to take to violin lessons. By the time she finished planning a month it would look like a pack of Crayola markers had thrown up on the calendar! And somehow now that all the kids are grown and out of the house, the calendar still looks that way. Just walking past that thing stresses me out.
Now, my calendar is electronic, but it is just as full as the one on my parents’ refrigerator! We’re all busy people, and so in response to this dynamic, the church council of this church said, “let’s add one more thing to everybody’s plates!” and so we started looking into creating Life Groups. There are churches, many of them, who encourage their folks to gather in small groups, and those churches have found this kind of ministry to be fruitful, and besides, this is the original model of church anyway, small groups of people who gather together, who are accountable to one another, who share joys and concerns and life with one another, and then who come together with other people in other groups to worship God together, as one body. And so, they decided, we ought to divide the church up geographically into smaller Life Groups, which is what we have done, and encourage them to meet monthly, which is what we are doing. Our first meeting will be right after church on February 22, and we’ll be contacting folks about their groups over the next couple of weeks. If you haven’t received a letter about this let me know and I will be sure to get you more information.
And if this feels like too much, like just one more thing, let us remember that the whole of Jesus’s public ministry was all crammed into all of three years, and somehow, with everything else he had to do, he somehow had enough time to go off on his own every now and again to pray. I don’t care how holy you are—if you constantly have people who need things from you, if you keep constantly busy, if you can never find time to slow down enough to examine your heart and listen for the voice of God—I don’t care how holy you are, you’re never going to get quiet enough to hear God’s call. Let me put it this way. If not even Jesus could sufficiently tend to his inner life without going away alone, you don’t stand a chance!
I have to tell you, I’ve been in the church long enough to be able to tell when somebody is avoiding dealing with their own stuff, their own baggage. I can tell because those people are always busy, always doing something, and that’s not to say they are doing bad things! I am sure it sounds strange that sometimes I can tell when something is wrong when people serve too much, but I have met plenty of people who hide behind serving others, who hide behind always working, always helping, and I mean, I know God wants us to serve! But if we are interested in following Jesus, in being like Jesus, then let’s actually be like Jesus and find time to go off alone, to find time to be present with your thoughts, and yes, to let your demons raise their hands every once in a while, because if I know anything about the demons that plague us, those voices that tell us that we aren’t good enough, or that everybody else has it together, you can’t bury those demons in a pile of work and expect them to go away! You can’t stay so busy that they go away! But you can learn to live with them, to domesticate them in a way, so that when they try to get your attention, you can pat them on the head and tell them to heel! You simply can’t expect to be faithful without intentionally tending to your heart, and maybe this is a crazy thing for the pastor of a church launching a major Life Group initiative to say, but you can’t tend to your heart without being alone! This is what Jesus tells us. This is what he shows us.
But then, you can’t spend all your time alone, either. You can’t spend all your time in your head, working out your own stuff, and somehow reach enlightenment or whatever. You can’t stay home by yourself all the time and be faithful. Left to my own devices, I’m liable to sit at home all the time, never see another soul, and yet the church pulls me out! I may be oriented to be introspective, maybe you are, too, but we shouldn’t stay introspective so that we can avoid other people any more than we should stay busy with other people to avoid our own thoughts. You must have balance. Balance.
And so we look to scripture, and in this morning’s passage we find Jesus in a variety of settings. He starts in the synagogue, in the house of worship, with all the faithful in the town, and from there, he goes off with a small group, four of his trusted disciples, and heals Peter’s mother-in-law, because you need those close relationships, that support. And then he heads off to a large group of people in need of healing before he goes off by himself into the deserted place to pray.
I find this to be such a helpful example of balance. Like Jesus in the synagogue, we need to be in worship together. And we need to do mission together, to go out into the larger world to serve. But so do we need to be in small groups together, so do we need to make sure to have time alone to pray, to read the Bible, to meditate on the presence of God in our lives. And listen, if you are new to this whole church thing, if you aren’t sure how to pray, just do this. Just find some time, set an alarm for two minutes—five minutes!—and be quiet. Then take some time and share the desires of your heart with God. Think them, say them out loud, write them down, whatever. Ask for forgiveness. Say amen, and congratulations, you have prayed. That’s all there is to it. And yet it is so very important.
We need to be involved in all of these ways, in solitude, in small groups, in corporate worship, in mission out in the larger world. To put it another way, the life of faith looks like this: we start with ourselves and our own relationship with God and expand our influence, so I start with me, and then I expand to my small group, those relationships that keep me accountable and who love and care for me, and then I expand to my church community, the people I love and worship with, and then I expand beyond the doors of the church in mission to all the world, for the mission of the church isn’t just to have great worship, but to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world! Each of these pieces is important, and I’ll be honest, here at North Decatur United Methodist Church, we are pretty great at two of them. We’re pretty good at worship—the young folks who have led us this morning are proof of that. And we’re great at mission—wonderful at reaching out in love, wonderful at advocating that everyone has a place to sleep and a spot at God’s table.
But we have room for improvement on the small group front, which is why we’re taking so much time to push these Life Groups. They are vital—vital!—parts of what it means to be a part of the family of God. It is so important to gather with people who live near you, who understand your neighborhood and who can provide care for you where you are, and who knows, maybe these groups become ways to welcome new people into the fold of this great congregation, as you look to a neighbor and say, hey, don’t bring a thing, but come eat with us. Come fellowship with us. We’re not all the same—we’re of all ages and races and we fall on a wide spectrum of belief—but we are united in our devotion to Jesus Christ. This is why a small group is so important.
And, I think, many of us, many of us could use a little work on being quiet enough to share the desires and pains of our own hearts with God, taking time to slow down enough to hear the gentle drumming of your heart, so that the very rhythm that orders your life doesn’t get lost among the noise. I’ll just speak for myself here. The whole idea of this passage making me feel better about myself is a joke, of course, because while I am an introvert, I’m awful about sitting with my thoughts, awful about making time to be alone with God. It’s a joke, because I ought to be worrying less about finding ways that Jesus is like me and worrying more about finding ways that I can be more like Jesus. I doubt I’m alone, and so I think each of us would do well to take time to tend to our own personal relationships with Jesus, to listen for the whisper of the Holy Spirit, the call of God on your life that is like nobody else’s calling, because it is for you.
The good news is this. Every time I make time for God in my life, every time I intentionally carve out time to gather with others and balance it with time to be alone, I find myself blessed. I find myself in the presence of God, more attuned to God’s hopes for my life and more at peace. And when I don’t make time, I’m miserable, and it seems that I get less done. I try to squeeze it in here and there, but the quote from Philip Stanhope is true: there is time enough for everything, in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once; but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time. The same is true for your faith. There’s enough time, if you will take time for it. But if you don’t, well . . . don’t be surprised if you find yourself standing at your calendar with a crowbar and some WD-40, trying to wedge in one more thing.

I know that we’re busy people. I know that. Believe me, I get that suggesting we find time for this stuff—for small groups and for alone time—I know that it, too, may sound like one big joke as you consider the calendar that is your life. But I also know this. At the end of the day, the problem isn’t that we don’t have time to gather and time to be alone. The problem is that, this being the most important stuff in the whole world, we don’t have time not to.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

February 1 Sermon

Acts 2:38-47
Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
A Methodist minister, a Baptist minister, and a Presbyterian minister were having lunch together one Monday. 

The Methodist minister said, "We had a great Sunday! We gained four new people." 

The Baptist preacher said, "We did better than that! We gained six new people." 

The Presbyterian pastor said, "Well, we did even better than that! We got rid of our 10 biggest trouble makers!"

Well, we are going to talk today about what it means to be a part of a church community.
We have a particularly great one here, and a lot of you are new in the past few months, so I want to do something pretty basic, which is to spend my time this morning talking about what it means to be church, and in particular what it means to be a part of this church. If you are new, I hope this is helpful to you, and if you have been here for sixty years, well, I think we could all use a refresher.
And one big reason I want to talk about what it means to be a part of a church community is that the church council and I are unveiling a pretty big project this month that we think will bear dividends for North Decatur United Methodist Church well into the future. I am more excited about this initiative than just about anything we’ve done her so far. And I will get to that, I promise. But I want to talk first about what it means to be a part of a church, and as I do I want to confess something. I have not done a great job of talking about what it means to be church because though I didn’t really grow up in church, I have been in church long enough that I just sort of assume that everybody knows what it means to be a part of the church. But that’s simply not the case.
In fact, if I asked twenty people off the street what it meant to be part of a church community, I would probably get twenty different answers. Even inside the church, as I have said, I haven’t done a great job of talking about what it means, so when I talk about being a member of the church, you might not even really know what that means. You might not even think it’s important, to join a church, and why should you? Everybody’s welcome here, after all, so why bother joining? Why bother making a public commitment to be loyal to Jesus Christ through this congregation and uphold it with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness for Jesus Christ?
The answer, of course, is found in scripture, and in particular, the book of Acts, which is the story of the early church, the first Christians. You will notice that in this morning’s scripture lesson, the early disciples—all who believe, we are told—were together and had all things in common. That is to say that they sold everything they owned and held a common purse. I want to make sure you understand that I am not suggesting we go this far! But what I am suggesting is that commitment matters. You could say oh, I’m a Christian, and hop around churches like you are flipping channels, but you are missing commitment, you are missing what the writer and theologian Eugene Peterson calls a long obedience in the same direction.
There’s something to be said, after all, for putting everything in a common pot. You can’t really weasel out of that kind of arrangement. There’s a reason that we use the phrase “all in” when we talk about commitment. You can’t hold all things in common without really being committed. And the problem is that now we’re sort of past that, now that we’re all separate in our own homes and with our own bank accounts and what have you, we sometimes forget the importance of commitment, the importance of a long obedience in the same direction. This isn’t to say that your commitment can’t change; maybe you’ll get transferred, or something will happen and you’ll have to move, but it is to say that there are a thousand excuses not to commit, and yet commitment is about now, about what you agree to now, and how you seek to live into those things you profess to believe.
This, I think, is one of the lessons of Acts. That in order to be properly faithful, you’ve got to commit to God and to a group of people, and say, here is where I am now. I am with you now. I am committed: to care for you, to be with you, to learn with you, to argue and stretch and change the world with you. This is why we have church membership. Not so that you have a card to carry around in your wallet, but because commitment matters. Because being faithful requires being committed, and the way God has called us to be committed to God is through being committed with a group of people. This is why scripture tells us that when two or three is gathered, God is present. You can’t live a proper life of faith alone. You just can’t do it.
But commitment is only half the answer, because commitment is empty if you aren’t living it out, and here, too, the first Christians show us how to be faithful. Acts 2 tells us that the first disciples, the first church, devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. That’s not such a bad place to start. This is what it means to be a member of the body of Christ: that you devote yourself to learning, that you agree to be a part of a faith community, to care for one another, to celebrate when one is born and mourn when one dies: to share meals and lives with one another.
I wish I could tell you that I have always had this figured out but, I have to say that I didn’t really start to get it until the days after our daughter Emmaline was born. This may surprise you, but in some ways, my wife Stacey and I are pretty private people. And particularly because we are clergy, we are always hesitant to be in positions where we need help, because we are supposed to be the helpers! When Stacey was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2011, we didn’t tell a soul at the church we were serving. We didn’t even mention that Stacey was having surgery until the day before she had it, because we just didn’t want all of that attention. And we got through it, but we couldn’t have if some dear friends who are also clergy saw that we were trying to do it all ourselves and instead called me the day before and said, “Dalton, we think you are being ridiculous! So we are going to come and sit in the waiting room with you whether you like it or not. If you want us to sit on the far side and you turn your back to us, that is fine, but we are coming.” And it was what I needed, of course, to have them there distracting me and caring for me during what was very successful surgery but which was a nightmare to sit through.
And so when we had Emmaline a couple of years later, and the United Methodist Women at that church wanted to put together a meal schedule for us, we reluctantly agreed. I think Stacey felt pity for me as I am usually the cook and she knew I’d be an emotional basket-case as soon as we brought Emmaline home, which was a correct assumption. And for days, we had casseroles. Days! I started having dreams about chicken spaghetti. But, you know, though we are private, though we like to think we have it all together, though I am enough of an introvert that sometimes I feel like locking the front door and throwing away the key, that kind of care was exactly what we needed. And the food was nice, but it wasn’t even the food. It was the love, the care, by people who knew we needed church. They were church for us when we couldn’t be at church.
This is what it means to be part of a church community. The pastor is not responsible for caring for everybody. Janet, who is our wonderful minister of visitation, is not responsible. The rest of the church staff is not responsible. We do care, and we visit and check on you when you are sick because we love you, but the ultimate responsibility for caring for one another is yours!
This brings me to the big announcement. We sent letters out Friday that you may have already gotten, so you may know about this already. North Decatur United Methodist Church is gearing up to launch a program that has the potential to change this church and your faith for a long time to come. The program is called Life Groups, and here is how it will work.
The pastoral staff has taken all the households in the church and plotted them on a map based on where you live. (show map) And what we have done is put every member and regular attender of the church into intergenerational Life Groups of 12-15 people based on where you live, which means that families who live together will be in the same group and all the people in your group will live nearby. We are going to ask each Life Group to meet together once a month for four months in the spring (February-May) and four months in the fall (August-November), and then we’ll reevaluate and see how things are going.
Life Groups will be very simple: you will be invited to gather in someone’s home for a short time of prayer and then share a meal. There is no advance work, no study book, and no expectation that you do anything but show up, eat, and share Life together. The pastoral residents have developed a resource guide so you don’t even have to pray off the cuff. If you have kids, they’ll come with you, as this is truly an inter-generational initiative. We’ll officially kick this off in three weeks, on February 22, the last Sunday in February. We’ll let you know what your group will look like beforehand, but on that day, we will gather for a potluck luncheon in the fellowship hall immediately after church and sit at tables with our new Life Groups. Then, beginning in March, you’ll be able to schedule a mutually convenient time for your group to gather, to pray, to eat.
The purpose of these Life Groups is not to segment the church, or to create cliques, or anything like that. The purposes of these groups is simply to be faithful, to share life together the way God intended, and, gracious, to get to know one another. There are so many wonderful new folks here at North Decatur, and so many wonderful folks who have been here for years. We have much to teach each other. And the purposes of these groups is not just to create one more thing to fit into your busy life. If you have been around the church for a little while you will know that a little over a year ago, we decided to get rid of most of our committees so that we could free up time for people to serve God. I hope you will consider these groups a priority—one of the primary ways you seek to grow in your faith, because these kinds of relationships are foundational to what it means to follow Jesus.
In fact, if the plan for these Life Groups reminds you of this morning’s scripture lesson, know that this is not an accident.  It was the custom of the early disciples to care for one another in groups, to devote themselves to teaching, and fellowship, and breaking bread together, and praying for one another. This is the model of scripture, and it is the model of the Methodist movement, all the way back to John Wesley. It may be a new way of doing church for some of us, but truly, it is the oldest way of doing church. And so we’re going to try it for a few months. This is new for us so there is naturally some trepidation. I get that. I just ask that you go into this with a spirit of willingness, and understand that because this is new, we’ll have some kinks to work out. I ask, as well, that you pray for this program, that God would use it to help all of us grow and to help us reach out to new people who need to hear God’s warm welcome.
And let me just say this. If you are new here, and not yet really sure about all this church stuff, that’s really fine. Going forward, the church council has agreed that participating in a Life Group should be an expectation for joining the church, but it is certainly not a requirement for coming to church. I have to tell you that I have struggled with how to talk about all of this stuff in a hospitable way, because I know that not all of us are ready. Maybe you will be one day, but you aren’t there yet. That’s fine. Please, please hear me say this. Keep coming to worship. Come back. Learn more. Hear more. Be welcomed. Be loved. Because while church membership has its expectations, being a child of God happens all on its own.

This is why, while actually joining the church has expectations, while it involves membership vows and all the rest, our theology of Holy Communion is the same as the theology we’ve been sharing on the church sign: everybody is welcome. This isn’t our table. It’s God’s table. This isn’t our church. It’s God’s church. And you—prostitute or politician, screaming baby or sullen teenager, sinner or saint—you are welcome here. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, January 26, 2015

January 25 Sermon

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
Jonah 3:1-10
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across.Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
I was talking this week with Alina, our wonderful office manager here at the church, about this morning’s sermon. Alina, as you may know, has a Master of Divinity degree from the great Candler School of Theology, and like many young graduates of seminary, she shared with me that Jonah was her favorite book of the Bible. It’s been some time since I’ve read all of Jonah, which isn’t hard, really. It’s only four chapters. But I had that the book of Jonah is really hilarious. It’s a farce. It’s a ridiculous story.
I mean, here, in a nutshell, is the story of Jonah. Are you ready? Here we go.
God calls Jonah one day and says, go to the city of Ninevah, which has turned evil, and put them on notice. And Jonah, having heard the voice of God, promptly gets up and buys a boat ticket to Tarshish, which is the opposite direction, as if he can outsmart and outrun God. And the storms come and knock the boat about, and all the people on the boat look at Jonah and say, “this is your fault, because you are trying to outsmart God and that doesn’t really work,” and they figure they’d be better off with him off the boat, which makes pretty good sense to me, and they throw him off, and immediately—immediately!—the seas calm and everything goes back to normal and everybody is happy again.
Except Jonah isn’t so happy because not only does he have God after him, but he’s been thrown off a boat in the middle of the sea, and if that’s not enough he gets swallowed by a fish, inside of which he spends three days and three nights, and he literally prays to God about the seaweed he has wrapped around his head. I told you: this is a farce. After three days, the fish spits him out, and Jonah decides not to press his luck, so he goes on to Ninevah and spends three days telling everybody he sees that they’re all going to be destroyed by God. … But when the Ninevites change their tune and repent from their evil ways, the Bible says, God changes God’s mind and decides not to destroy them.
And it is at this point that Jonah decides that the most embarrassing part of this whole story isn’t the part where he prays with seaweed wrapped around his head, but the part where it turns out that he was wrong, or to be more technical, God sort of sold him out. God said, I made up my mind to destroy the city, but I changed my mind, and now Jonah looks like a total loon, like one of those guys on tv who shows up every now and again declaring the end of the world is going to come on such and such a date, only to have dozens of interviews to decline the morning after it doesn’t happen.
And so, because he looks like a crazy person, instead of rejoicing that this city of 120,000 people won’t be destroyed, Jonah goes and pouts. He goes outside the city gates and makes himself a little hut and sits underneath it and pouts, and this all feels very familiar to me because I have a two year old child. And that’s actually the end of the story. The story of Jonah doesn’t really resolve beyond God calling Jonah out for pouting, because of course what Jonah is doing is saying that it is much more important that I not feel like a fool than it is for God to spare a hundred and twenty thousand people. As I said, it’s ridiculous. It is a farce!
But if it is a farce, it is also much closer to modern life than we’d like to admit. We like people to get what we think they deserve, and when they don’t, we pout. We pout. I mean, how much have you heard about Tom Brady’s footballs this week? It’s silly. I’m not saying it is right. I am just saying it doesn’t matter. Here we are pouting about something silly and ignoring the real needs under our noses. I think it is telling that while the culture obsesses about underinflated footballs, we’ll be going outside after church huddle up and pray that human traffickers are intercepted.
As a culture, we really do get so caught up in the idea that people should get what they deserve, we pout so much, that we miss God at work! But there is another dynamic in this passage that we need to pay attention to, for the story Anna read this morning carries within it this strange verse, one of the strangest in all the Bible: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”
God changed God’s mind. If ever there were four words that could shake up the foundation of the church, those would be them. God changed God’s mind. It almost doesn’t make any sense, like it’s a typo or something, but here it is, in the Holy Bible. God changed God’s mind. I’ve heard it was a woman’s prerogative, of course, but I guess it’s God’s prerogative, too. And of course God can do whatever God wants. That’s what makes God God. If you were to come up to me on the street and ask me, what is the definition of God, I’d probably say something like, “the ultimate being, the one who is not bound in any way.” So of course God can do what God wants.
And this makes intellectual sense, of course, but it doesn’t jibe with so much of how we understand God! “Great is thy faithfulness, O God our Father, there is no shadow of turning with thee. Thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not, Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”
It’s a common thread throughout all our hymns, this idea that God doesn’t ever change. We have built so much of our theology on this idea that God doesn’t change, and I get it, I really do get it! My life is so full of change, all the time, faster and faster and faster these days that I need my God to stand still! I need to be able to look back and see God still there, in the same place as always, so that I have a landmark from which to understand my location. I need God to be like the North Star, my point of reference for navigation.
And yet here it is, God changes God’s mind, and you don’t even really need the last two words for it to be revolutionary. The important part is the first two words. God changes. What a revolutionary idea. God changes.
You know what this all reminds me of? It reminds me of being in love. I hope you have had the opportunity to be in love in some point in your life, but it changes you, that kind of love. In fact, unless you are vulnerable, unless you are open to change, it isn’t love at all. You have to be vulnerable to love, to offer up part of yourself, to open yourself to new things, new revelations, new intimacy. This is what it means to love: to share part of yourself with another and open yourself to being shared with. To be open. To be vulnerable.
And this is what God did with the Ninevites. God saw their ways were evil, but they turned around, they repented, they changed their ways, and God was moved. God was moved. What a revolutionary idea, but what a wonderful one, what an incredible thought, that God so loves us that God could be moved by us. Moved.
It makes me wonder why we don’t take our relationships with God more seriously, why we so focus on rules and regulations that we miss out on the richness of God’s love for us. And it makes me wonder, too, about what it means about the nature of God that God changes God’s mind. If God changes God’s mind, if God changes, what does that mean for us? How can we know? How can we know navigate life?
It would be easier, in some ways, if God were static, if this whole thing were just about rules, because at least then we wouldn’t have to worry about this kind of stuff. But I have been thinking a lot about this dynamic this week, as I have tried to make some sense of this particular story in scripture, and I have to tell you, I am giving thanks that God changes. I am grateful. Let me sort of back up for a minute and share why.
It should come as no surprise that the world is changing awfully quickly these days. The internet means we can communicate with people all over the world in an instant. If you aren’t here today, you may be listening to this sermon on our church podcast. The most recent generation is the most diverse in American history. The church, my God, the church, looks much different than it has looked in the past and if it is going to continue to thrive, to be faithful to God’s call, it is going to have to keep changing.
And here’s the thing. You have heard, I think, the quote that the only constant in life is change?  It is a quote that certainly rings true these days but one thing to note is that it was said by Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher who lived in the fifth century BC. This has always been the case. The world has always changed, and perhaps it changes more quickly nowadays, but change is not new. It is not even necessarily bad; not at all! Change means possibility, and possibility is the midwife of the Holy Spirit. Change is the way in which God continues to work in the world, and maybe the work of God looks different than you expected, different than you have experienced before, but this is how God works! God changes, always keeps up with the world, so that we are not worshiping some dusty relic from thousands of years ago. We worship a God who is rooted in history but who is with us now! Who loves us now! Who understands that there are in fact two constants in life: change, and God’s love, and that those two things are not distinct, incompatible features of life but in fact, in many ways, the same feature, for you cannot love without changing. Love requires vulnerability, giving of yourself. And besides, we see throughout scripture that while it is the case that God sometimes changes God’s mind, it is always in the direction of mercy. Always in the direction of grace. Always in the direction of love. And just like God was moved by the repentance of the Ninevites so long ago, so too do we pray God is moved by us, by our repentance, by the ways in which we show love.
Now, it may sound strange to consider the idea that in love, God changes, but I don’t even think that’s as hard as we sometimes pretend it is. Yes, God is sovereign, yes, God is ultimate, but I don’t think we have a problem with thinking about the ways God loves us. We know that God loves us. That’s not really much of a problem. The problem comes in how we respond to God’s love. The problem is that if we were to try to find ourselves in this story, we probably wish we were like the Ninevites who repent and experience God’s grace, but it is more likely that we are like Jonah, who sees firsthand that God’s grace and love is much more powerful than even a decision God has made to destroy the city, and yet all Jonah can do is pout. And I don’t think we’d necessarily say it quite this way, but the implication is clear: how could God do that? How could God show grace to that group of people who I am so certain don’t deserve it? Here I am, Jonah thinks, having done the right things and followed the rules and spent so much time in church that I have worn an indention into the pew the exact size and shape of my rear end, and yet God makes me look like a fool by acting in brand new ways that don’t look like anything I’ve seen before! I mean, this comes straight out of scripture! When God decides to be more merciful than Jonah thinks he should be—and in Jonah’s defense, it is more merciful than God originally says God is going to be—Jonah goes to the desert to sulk and says to God, “at this point, you have made me look like such a fool that it would be better for me to die than to live.”
It is so silly, this idea that Jonah would sulk over the breadth of God’s love, but it is also so real because we aren’t beyond it ourselves! When God shows favor to somebody we don’t like, or when we show up after having lived by the same rules for years and years only to find that God has changed the game, when God changes God’s mind, we’re prone to sulk, to whine, to pout. I’ll just speak for myself; I am, myself, not above this kind of response.
And yet for all of this, for all of this wrestling and confusion and frustration at trying to understand a God who, in the final analysis, operates in a way that is beyond comprehension, for all of this, it is a lie that the only constant in life is change, for there is another constant. The other constant is God’s love. And when we feel like the rug has been ripped out from underneath us, when things change, when what we thought we knew blows away like dust off an old book, that is when God is with us! For we worship a God who understands change, who—we read in scripture—even experiences change.

Look, I’m not saying this is easy stuff. I’m not saying it is easy to live in a world of constant change. I’m just saying that God knows what it is like. God knows and loves. On days when it feels like the old handrails are gone, hold onto that. Hold onto that. In the name of the Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

January 18 Sermon

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

Psalm 139
1Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
3You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
4Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
5You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
13For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
15My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
17How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
18I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

12“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.13“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” 17But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?20For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.
One of the knocks we in the church sometimes get when we are careful to be open-minded and welcoming and not super judgey is that sometimes people say, oh, they don’t actually believe much of anything. So I want to center my remarks this morning on the idea of why we bother being good: why bother being good at all.
Now, I happen to believe this way of being is what Jesus would have us do: I think Jesus would have us welcome everybody and be open-minded and all the rest, but it’s sort of a radical idea, and we sometimes get criticized by people who seem to think that the only way to believe things strongly is to look down on people who disagree with you. It’s the old church lady mentality, you know, that character from Saturday Night Live that Dana Carvey played who thought everything that wasn’t super churchy was necessarily of the devil? Somehow, we seem to sometimes think that we need to differentiate ourselves by talking about what we’re against more than what we’re for.
It is a lot easier, after all, to just say we’re against fornication or greed or gluttony than it is to say, “We’re for lifelong expressions of equality and faithfulness in sexual relationships, and here is how we help people live that out” or “We’re for finding ways to live generously and giving money away freely and here is how we do that” or, maybe the most difficult one for those of us who have been sitting in the church pews for a long time, “We’re for eating only as much as we need and sharing the rest with those who are less fortunate and here is how we go about making sure everybody has enough to eat.”
So instead, we talk about being against this or against that, or, the natural extension, saying that God is against this or against that, and it’s not too far a walk before you have Westboro Baptist Church, that contemptible organization that is neither truly Baptist nor really a church, protesting soldiers funerals, all the while using language so vile on their picket signs, in the so-called name of God, that I won’t even speak it from the pulpit of this church.
That’s a lot of baggage we’re dealing with, you and me. It’s a lot of discoloring of the message of Jesus Christ that we have to deal with, and so sometimes, sometimes in the interest of making sure nobody associates them with that kind of hatefulness, churches do the easy thing and just run the other way, say, oh, it really doesn’t matter what you do. Just love everybody they say, which is fine until you realize that many of these fine folks don’t actually have any idea what loving everybody means beyond voting for their preferred political party and saving the whales and washing your hair in organic tofu or whatever.
I mean, I understand that instinct. I really do. I don’t like being tarred with the hateful dreck that is so often associated with the church of Jesus. The Barna group, a Christian research organization, did a study a few years ago of people outside the church and found that 87%--eighty-seven percent!—of people outside the church think the church is judgmental, 85% think the church is hypocritical, 72% think the church is out of touch with reality, and 70% think the church is insensitive to others. These are real numbers, folks, and if the trends have continued, they’ve only gotten worse since the study was done in 2007. I understand why there’s this real desire to move past any specific teaching of Jesus, anything that might inconvenience us or make us feel like we might need to do something differently in our own lives to become more faithful to the call of God on our lives. Besides the fact that we want to run the other way from these kind of identifiers that sting so strongly, we’d rather not be faced with the idea that there is anything we should do differently! Nobody wants to come to church, after all, and hear a sermon about what they are doing wrong!
Rest assured, I don’t intend to preach a sermon about what we are doing wrong. That’s not why you came and it’s not helpful in any case. But I do want to preach a sermon that points to Jesus, because it is not the case that we all have it all together already, that we’ve all figured it out. It’s not the case that we’re all so composed that we can come together each week and talk about how great we are and how awful everybody else is for not being as great as we are. We have brokenness, and sin, and heartache. The world is full of pain and injustice; the struggle for basic civil rights is ongoing. We don’t have it all together. In short: we come to church and we listen to the sermon and we search scripture because we know that in the final analysis, we’re not capable of saving ourselves. We’re not capable of saving ourselves. Every time we try we find ourselves in the midst of another war, another religious conflict, another intractable political problem that we can’t find our way out of.
The bad news is that we aren’t capable of saving ourselves, but the good news is that we don’t have to, because Jesus Christ has shown us a better way. It is a way of love, and care, and acceptance, and justice, and work.
Christ shows us a better way, but it isn’t just about buying Organic. I wish I could tell you that it doesn’t take much work on your part, because I don’t relish standing up here with no shield from all the potential spitballs, but the fact of the matter is that we learn in scripture that all of the change, all of the justice, all of the civil rights and the love that the world needs starts . . . right here. It starts in the heart. I don’t mean to suggest that Christians have it all together, or that nothing good comes from other religions or from people of no religion at all. I’m just saying that the savior I read about in scripture, Jesus Christ: he is pure love, pure giving, pure unselfishness, and while I don’t have it all together myself, my God, do I want to be like that guy when I grow up.
Now, I haven’t always wanted to be like him. When I was a kid, mostly I was just scared of him. I don’t know if you had this experience, but while I didn’t spend much time in church growing up, on the rare occasion I did find myself in church, I heard things like, “Don’t ever sin because God is watching you,” you know, like God was some sadistic Santa Claus who was always watching to make sure you never screwed up. But that’s not how God works at all. God gives us grace. God forgives us. God accepts us. God loves us. God claims each of us as one of God’s children. But that doesn’t mean that anything that is permissible is beneficial! This is about growing up. It is about being an adult, about recognizing that we ought to live in ways that are good for everybody, that acknowledge everyone’s humanity.
We aren’t good just because there is some arbitrary list of rules that says we ought to be. God is not arbitrary! The ways we have been shown to live are the best ways, because they are the ways of love. And yes, your body is a temple, but so is everybody else’s! You don’t get to claim the higher ground and treat everybody else as a play thing. Each of us—each of us!—is fearfully and wonderfully made. And if you aren’t treating everybody you meet as such you aren’t doing justice to the work of the living God.
Friends, this is what it means to be the church, the Body of Christ. Each of us has a part to play, but what is more, we aren’t whole when we aren’t together. We are connected in mysterious, marvelous ways. It is as the poet John Donne says, no man, no woman is an island, entire of himself, entire of herself. We are connected as God’s people, and what you do when nobody is watching matters! Your private life has public consequences, because we are connected to one another and our relationships matter! You can’t hate people in your head without it eventually coming out your mouth. You cannot disconnect your inner life from your outer life any more than you can disconnect your hard drive from your monitor and expect it to still work.
And yet this is the norm, it seems: this idea that I can think whatever I want, I can be however I want, I can be as resentful in my own mind as I want as long as I speak kindly to strangers or whatever. But that is bogus!
Here’s the thing. Of course we have grace. Of course we acknowledge that none of us has it all together yet. But to use grace, to use the fact that we are all struggling together as an excuse to do whatever you want in your private life is to do exactly what Paul says not to do in this morning’s scripture lesson. This is not to say that following Jesus is about following a long list of rules, but it is to say that not everything is good for you. If it doesn’t build relationship, it isn’t good. When the Pslamist says that each of us is knit together in our mothers’ wombs, he doesn’t mean that you were knit together as a child of God and everything and everybody else is to be a plaything. The Psalmist means that each person is a child of God, and if you aren’t seeing each person as an equal, as somebody on the same plane as you because each person, just like you, is a child of God, you aren’t properly following Jesus! And you can try to trick yourself all you want, but you simply cannot treat people unfairly in business dealings, or live in resentment, or end up trapped in the vice of watching pornography and maintain this understanding that each person is made in the image of God. These kinds of behaviors obliterate the relationships we have as God’s children, beloved by God and equal in God’s sight. They aren’t relationships at all, because in the final analysis, they are all about me and my desires rather than our relationship. And they certainly aren’t about God.
Friends, if we want to be people who change the world, who are faithful, who follow Jesus and speak justice and love everybody, we’ve got to start . . . right . . . here.
Now, here is the good news. This business of personal holiness, of tending to your heart: it may not be easy. But you don’t have to do it alone! This is why we have the church: to care for one another, to help deal with issues of the heart, and I’ve never met anybody who didn’t have issues of the heart. Oh, I’ve met people who thought they had it together, but it just never works. And so the church is here. If you are struggling with something—be it pornography, or addition, or prejudice—if there is something you need help with, come talk. And if you don’t feel comfortable talking to me, that’s fine, we’ll find you somebody. This is who we are. This is the work of the church, to help people through difficult times, to struggle together, to—as some people have said—literally love the hell out of people.
You see, you can’t make a bright line distinction between the work of the heart and the work of the hands. Just like you can’t properly act as an agent of God out in the world without tending to your heart, neither can you sit around talking about how holy you are, how much you just looooove Jesus, without sharing that love such that each person knows he or she is God’s beloved child. I remember once meeting somebody who said that her whole deal, her whole reason for living was to just be passionate about Jesus. She said, I just want people to know that I am passionate about Jesus. The problem is: I don’t think she knew what that meant! I sure didn’t. I don’t think she had any idea what it meant to be passionate about Jesus! I think she just knew what it meant to talk about being passionate about Jesus, and that’s not the same thing, because you can't separate your personal relationship with God from your public living as god's child. You can’t love Jesus without loving other people. There is no social relationship with a personal one. Until you’re ready to make changes in your own heart, bit by bit, doing what John Wesley called going on to perfection, until you’re ready to make those changes, you’re missing out on the riches of a life lived in love, in the shadow of grace.
Maybe you were expecting something different today. It is Martin Luther King weekend, after all, so maybe instead of a sermon about why we bother being good, you were expecting a call to service, a stem-winder about freedom. Freedom demands responsibility and the responsibility of the church is to be agents of Christ's love in our hearts and in the world, because in the final analysis you can't separate your personal relationship with God from your public living as god's child.
 So let me share some words from King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, as he talks about this freedom and this responsibility. There was a time, he says, when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

Friends, we can be that church again. I know we can. This is why we bother being good: not because the life of faith is about following rules, or because we are about earing enough points to get into Heaven. We bother being good because it is a witness to the seriousness with which we take our faith, the deadly seriousness of following Jesus. We bother being good because the ancient evils of prejudice and war and hate persist, and we are called to be more than a thermometer that records the ideas and principles of popular opinion. We bother being good because even in the face of criticism, we believe that we are called to show the world what we are for: the way of love, which is the best way. It is the very best way. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, January 5, 2015

January 4 Sermon

Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Well, what a story. What a story. As the Christmas decorations start to come down, as we start to box up the garland and the ornaments, just when we thought Christmas was over, we’re treated to Epiphany, the celebration of the arrival of the magi. I don’t know if you knew this, but Stacey and I were actually married on Epiphany, so all over Cannon Chapel at the great Candler School of Theology at Emory University, we put up nativity scenes with the wise men, and we hung a beautiful gold and white double-wedding-ring quilt behind the altar in honor of the day.
But beyond the connection to my wedding, or whatever, it really does have all the markers of a great story. First, there’s the magi, sort of astronomers, sort of magicians, whatever they were, and then there’s King Herod, and palace intrigue, and jealousy, and signs in the Heavens, all of it. It’s a great story. But you know why I think the church really loves this story? It’s an epic story, but the real reason I think we love this story is that we want God to give us a sign. I won’t speak for you, but when I have a decision to make, or when I’m trying to figure out how to live faithfully as a Christian out in the real world, I’d kill to have a sign as clear as the one the magi got. So when I hear sermons about, “oh, you know, what dedication those magi had! How hard their travels must have been! How much they must have loved God to get up out of their comfortable chairs and follow!” I sort of roll my eyes a bit, because no, if I saw a star rise in the east and lead me until it stopped over the savior’s house, I’d have it made! How lucky they were to receive such a clear sign, such a clear calling from God, and here the rest of us are trying to figure out how to be faithful without the star, without the sign, without the clarity.
No, I don’t feel sorry for the magi at all. If anything, I feel jealous. I can’t tell you how many times I have prayed for that star! I know that I am not alone in this. How often we wish we could receive a clear sign from God to help us make a decision, or to make us feel God’s presence, or to make us feel God’s love! Forget the star; I would have settled for a lightning bug!
I’m not saying that I’ve never felt God’s presence or like God’s not spoken to me, given me peace when I needed it. Just yesterday, as I considered the loss of my friend and felt what the scripture calls groans too deep for words, I could feel God’s presence, God’s peace. It’s not that I’ve not felt God move in my life. I’m just saying that I wish God would speak less in a whisper and more in a shout, because sometimes that’s what it takes to get my attention.
I got to thinking about signs this past week as we traveled back and forth to Memphis to see family. There’s a lot vying for your attention these days. Maybe that’s why I want a star; there is so much that wants me to think that it is God, that it is the most important thing in the whole world, that when God really does show up, it can be hard to recognize. Maybe it was just the delirium of six hours in the car with a screaming toddler, but I got to wondering just how many signs we passed between Memphis and Atlanta. We saw hotel signs and restaurant billboards and leftover political signs and little hand scrawled yard signs advertising fresh  . . . delicious . . . local . . . Georgia pecans. I probably saw five thousand signs and they all wanted my attention. It’s no wonder we so desperately want a clear sign from God. There’s a lot to drown out.
I think about this when I think about our own sign, our church sign out front. There are a lot of church signs out there! I was talking to somebody the other day about this, and I realized that while almost every church has a sign, very rarely do I actually pay enough attention when passing to even let the message register in my brain. Stacey and I were driving to Toco Hills the other day, just up the road, and since I was the passenger, I decided to try to really pay attention to the number of church signs I passed, figuring there would be two or three, and I quit counting when I got to 30! There are lots of messages out there. This is why we are careful with the message we put out. We are competing with a lot of other messages, so it is important to stand out. And besides, it’s a lot of pressure to be a sign from God!
I mean, it’s hard enough living up to the rich legacy of that sign. One of the first things I heard from a ministry colleague when I got appointed here a year and a half ago was how wonderful the church signs were. She still ribs me to this day because she says that I’ll never be able to top the time somebody quoted Darth Vader from Star Wars and put out on the sign, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”
Just yesterday, Fred Powell was telling me about the time that somebody came by and stole the letters off the sign, so he did his usual gracious thing and went out to the sign and wrote up that while we’d like to have the letters back, we forgive. We forgive. I want you to know that the Nissan dealership across the street was so moved by that message that they offered to buy us a whole new set of letters. There’s your sign.
It is amazing to me about what a witness once church sign can be. You will remember a few weeks ago when somebody had a little fun with us and broke into the sign and switched the letters around to advertise that we were no longer having breakfast with Santa, but rather having breakfast with Satan. I’ve heard more jokes about deviled eggs over the last month than I hope to hear for the rest of my life. But because you all were who you always are and laughed so graciously about it, I want you to know that we have literally had people come to church here because we laughed that off. There’s your sign.
And then there is the sign we have out now, the one that says young, old, rich, poor, gay straight: you are welcome here. I’ve caught some grief for that one, as you might imagine, because I know not everybody is of one mind about the issue of homosexuality. But of course we’re not talking about an issue—we’re talking about people, and we all agree—and I am grateful for this—we all agree that we welcome everybody. We take all comers. This is the message of epiphany: that Christ did not just come to rescue the holier-than-thou. Christ’s message is for everybody. In fact, as the writer Jonathan Merritt says, Christmas reminds us that often pagan wise men know more about God than religious people who are steeped in scripture.
I want you to know that that sign, that message, it sort of happened by accident. I had Alfred put it up one day just because I didn’t have anything else to put up there, and before you know it, I had probably ten phone calls from people calling me crying, crying, thanking me—thanking you, really—for being a church that welcomed people who felt like nobody in all of God’s creation wanted them. I know we could have said “all are welcome,” and in fact, we do sometimes say that, but to a person, the people who have been moved by the sign because they have felt there was no place for them have said that there is something about naming just who it is that is welcome that serves as a sign, literally a sign from God, that points to the birth of Christ, the coming of the one who claims all people as God’s children.
I mean, that’s how you know it’s a sign from God. Not that you happen to find a sale on an outfit you really want, or you get a deal on tickets to Disney world. A true sign from God points beyond itself to the birth of Jesus Christ, not just two thousand years ago, but now, constantly happening. And isn’t this what we’re all looking for? Aren’t we all here looking for Jesus? I mean, I hope that’s why you are here. We’re all looking for Jesus, trying to be faithful, looking for a sign that will point us to God’s truth, and God’s mercy, and God’s grace. We may not be sent a star, but the good news is that I know of a sign stronger than a star, and that’s the sign of God’s people in mission, in action, in prayer and love and hope, reaching out and welcoming new people, loving everybody, caring for one another and sharing the experience of Jesus’s birth with the whole community, so that we don’t sort of take the nativity scene and box it up and charge people to look inside. We share it with everybody. Shoot, we stand on the corner in the cold and the wet and we sing it to people.
And when you put it that way, well, it helps me understand in new ways why the story of the magi is so powerful. It’s not the star. It’s not the star that moves us. It’s the magi themselves. The star isn’t the most powerful sign. The magi are.
I mean, here you have well-to-do men with camels and entourages and the whole nine yards—and enough money to buy expensive gifts fit for a king. These are not fly by night operators. These are the real deal. And they drop everything—everything!—to search for the savior. And when they get there, even upon seeing that he is a child, they remove their hats, they remove their shoes, they bow and they offer these gifts, these extravagant gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. There’s your sign: not just the gifts themselves, but the giving of them.
There’s your sign. The star is important, but it just sets off the chain of events. The star moves the magi who inspired the Gospel writers who teach each of us about Jesus. It is us, friends, who are charged with going out into the world to welcome new people into relationship with Jesus Christ. Yes, sometimes we are the magi, looking for a sign, but I think that even more than that, we’re called to be the star! We are called to be the sign!
This is why we serve in God’s name. This is why we do things like give away the entire Christmas offering: not so that people will know how great we are, but because we are a sign! We are a sign that points to the birth of Christ within the walls of the church and within our own hearts. Like it or not, you are that sign. And if given the choice between advertising the birth of Christ and fresh Georgia pecans, I think you know where I think your loyalty ought to be.
Now, I want to end a little differently. I want you to take some time during the time of reflection, and throughout your week, and think about how it is that you can be a star for others, so that you live in such a way that people know Jesus lives in your heart. I’m not talking about wearing tshirts with Bible verses; those are fine, but without loving action they as much good as leftover signs from last year’s election. I’m talking about really living your faith, walking the walk and talking the talk, so that when people listen to you speak and watch you interact with others, they know there’s something different about you.
And I want to ask the same question about the church. How can we as a church community live such that people know Jesus lives here, such that people know they are invited here so that they may meet Jesus? How can we be a sign?
In your bulletin, you’ll find a blank slip of paper. I’m going to invite you to think about who it is that needs to hear God’s good news, that needs a sign. During the time of reflection, I’m going to invite you to write down somebody—a group of people, a profession, anything—somebody who needs a sign from God that says that they are welcome: that God loves them. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to cycle through a few of these signs every couple of days as a witness—as a sign—to the community that God really does live here. I’ll go ahead and tell you, just so you aren’t shocked, that tomorrow morning, I’m going to have Alfred put up on one side of the sign that prostitutes are welcome here, because after all Jesus was friends with them, so we should be too. And on the other side, I’m going to do something actually, you know, controversial, and have it say that politicians are welcome here, too.

This is who we are called to be, friends. We are called to be a sign. And what a privilege—what a privilege!—to be tasked with welcoming new people into the family. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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