Sunday, June 30, 2019

Freedom and Expectations

PROPERS:         PROPER 8, YEAR C    
TEXT:                 GALATIANS 5:1, 13-25; LUKE 9:51-62

ONE SENTENCE:        The gift of faith in Christ brings with both freedom and                                        expectation.

            Among the rites of passage that nearly all of us have likely experienced is the obtaining of a driver’s license.

            I remember finallygetting my full license – on my third try.  The other attempts had ended with less than full satisfaction.

            But, finally, I was free! I could cavort about my home town of Meridian, Mississippi, go unescorted on dates, and cruise through the local Chick N’ Treat on weekend nights.  Who knew life could be so good!

            I was 15-years-old, and Born to be Wild was my theme song.

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            Then, I learned of the expectations along with that little piece of plastic.

            My little sister might need to go to piano lessons.

            Mom may need me to pick up groceries from Burnett’s Grocery Store.

            My older brother may need me to pick him up at WTOK Television Station after he got off work.

            And there were expectations about safety:  Careful driving, no speeding, hands at 10-and-2 on the steering wheel.

            So, there was a combination of freedomand expectationwhich came with my cherished driver’s license.  One might say, liberty and responsibility.

            The freedomwas well-understood. The enormity of the expectationcame home to me as several classmates were killed in various accidents.  I must admit, though, that on several occasions I “whistled past the graveyard.”  I must have had a guardian angel – for which I am thankful.

            God bless her, our daughter got the point about responsibilityearly-on.  On the first day she had her license, she ran into a police car!

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            We get similar points of emphasis in the second lesson and the gospel lesson today.
            In the passage from Galatians, the Apostle Paul writes:  
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters…

            My New Testament professor in seminary wrote a commentary on Galatians entitled, The Way of Freedom. By our baptism we have been freed.  We have been freed from the jot and tittleof the Law, which governed the religious culture of Jesus’ time. We have been freed to live transformed lives that are governed not by strict moral and legal guidelines, but by the love which is to animate our souls.

            That is why each of us – in our various moral states – is able to enter this nave each Sunday, say our prayers, offer our corporate confession, and come and receive the sacramental gifts of this altar.

            Paul delineates the forces which can bind us to the old life: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.

            And he goes on to describe the animating forces of the new life:  By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

            In the Gospel lesson, Jesus emphasizes what Paul hints at – the responsibility of the gift of new life:

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

            What Jesus is telling us is that there is an expectation of urgencyto the mission.  Not because the sweet by-and-bymight come real soon, but because people are hurting, thirsting, grieving, laying naked, homeless, and searching in the world today.

            So, it is incumbent on us – yes, even urgent.  

            Those of us who are ordained are to preach the Good News with fervor.

            Those who have medical degrees are to bind the wounds of those who are hurt.

            Those who have law degrees are to seek justice for those who might be without an advocate.

            Those who have plenty are to share with those who have little.

            Those of tender hearts are to empathize with those who are hurting.

            Those whom life has blessed abundantly are to spread those blessings about.

            Jesus said that no one who puts his hand to plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. Fortunately, we believe that grace will absolve us of sins of omission – of not taking the surrounding world as seriously as we might.

            But now we know:  We have both freedom and responsibility.  It is time to get behind the wheel.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Power of Silence and Storms

PROPERS:         PROPER 7, YEAR C    
TEXT:                 1 KINGS 19:1-4 (5-7) 8-15a

ONE SENTENCE:        It is through the silences and the trials that God can                                            move most profoundly.  

            There are a couple of axioms about the task of preaching which a good preacher should keep in mind.

            The first is this: Have a good beginning and a good ending… and keep them as close as possible. Reasonable enough.

            The second axiom is this:  Tell the people what you are going to say; Say it; then tell them what you have said.  That pretty-much sums it up.

            I don’t know that I will live-up to either of those axioms today, but I hope the key points come across.  They are these:  God speaks to us through the silences, AND, God transforms our lives through the storms.

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            Twenty-six years ago I was a young priest on the staff of a very large church in a Southern city.  I had been called to be an assistant there by another slightly-older priest whose gifts I recognized and from whom I thought I could learn much.

            The problem was this:  After I accepted the call to go to that larger church and before I arrived, the gifted priest, with whom I wanted to work, became disabled by a chronic and life-sapping disease.

            I had been thrown in the deep end of the pool, and I was struggling to tread water.

            My spiritual journey at that point was, as is said, a mile wide and an inch deep.  In other words, my spirituality was all on the surface.  I was floundering.

            So, in desperation, I turned to another priest at a nearby church.  He and I had grown up in the same hometown, though he was six years older than me.  He was a towering figure – six foot six. When he was a senior in high school, he was the first person I had ever seen dunk a basketball.  

            He was brilliant. He had been a Rhodes Scholar with Bill Clinton.  And he had a deep spiritual journey.

            So, I started visiting with him, once each week.  He told me of his own spiritual practice – of rising each morning and spending an hour in silent, centering prayer.  He urged me to get away from the franticness of life and turn toward silence.  God will speak to you through the silence, he said.

            Sadly, I was too anxious to take his advice.  But years later, our pathways crossed once again, and this time his counsel took root.  I turned toward the silence.  In that silence I found God.

            I have learned that it is necessary to have a well-defined spiritual discipline in this vocation.  People who say they pray while they mow the lawn do not know the value of a real discipline.  It is important to turn inside.

            That is one of the truths in the first lesson.  Elijah was fleeing the wrath of Ahab.  He had traveled hundreds of miles south in the Holy Land to take refuge in a cave on the Holy Mountain of Mt. Horeb.  There he hid.

            While Elijah cowered in the cave, the voice of God said to him: Go and stand outside for I am about to pass by.

            So, Elijah did as he was told.  There came a massive storm – but God was not in the storm.  There came an earthquake – but God was not in the earthquake.  There came a blazing fire – but God was not in the fire.

            Finally, there came a sheer silence – deep and profound.  God spoke to Elijah out of the silence.

            There is a lesson in that story.  We have difficulty in hearing God in the frantic pace of life.  The first lesson is an invitation into a deeper awareness of God’s presence in silence.

            That was a lesson that was important for me to learn.

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            My second point is this: God transforms us through the storms of life.

            Elijah is an excellent example.  He had faced-down the prophets of Ba’al on a mountain in Samaria… and in that process he had earned the undying enmity of Ahab.  Keep in mind that Ahab was married to Jezebel – they were both despicable and had led people astray.

            Elijah was a wanted man.  His life was anything but simple and placid.  He fled south – farsouth.  He was afraid for his life. He felt lost and utterly alone.

            Perhaps you have known similar low points in your life.  I know I have.  Sometimes we find ourselves at such low points we are unable to even see the light of day.  I have experienced that on several occasions.

            Perhaps your experience is like mine.  It is only in retrospect – in looking back – that you are able to see the redemption, the new life, the hope which can come from such moments.  I know I can.

            In the moment, when life is so bleak, you may feel overwhelmed.  You feel the breakers – the riptide of life – carrying you out to sea, to the deeper waters of despair.  In such moments, you can become hopeless and cynical – doubting the purpose and meaning of life.

            In such moments – the riptides of life – the only saving course is to release, and stop fighting the current. Know that you are beloved, and that no matter the circumstances, you are not alone.

            Or, you may experience the words of Hymn 637:

            “When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
            The rivers of woe will not thee overflow,
            For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
            And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.”

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Something Greater at Stake

PROPERS:         PENTECOST, YEAR C         
TEXT:                 ACTS 2:1-21, JOHN 14:8-27

ONE SENTENCE:        The Holy Spirit infused the hearts of the fearful disciples                                      on the first Christian Pentecost; it continues to move                                         through the Church in the Church’s finest moments.         

            Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the nation’s 32ndpresident.  He filled that post during some of the most trying days in our history – the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and, of course, the Second World War.

            His deep, rich voice calmed an anxious nation, with his Fireside Chats and his addresses to Congress.  He called people to go beyond themselves – to let go of overwhelming fear and take on great causes.

      He is one of the most quotable of presidents.  But at this moment, one stands out.  It is this: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.”

            When FDR was president 75 years ago, 156,000 troops from the Allied Countries landed on French soil.  On the beaches and from the air, taking enormous casualties in the process, the troops knew the truth of that statement: “Courage is not the absence of fear…”

            They were aware that something was more important than fear.  It was the defeat of the overarching evil of Nazism and the rebirth of freedom in those conquered lands.

            It was a pivot point in history.  And it came to be by 18 to 20-year-old soldiers being graspedby something which was much greater than their fear.

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            It was the same for the 38-year-old Martin Luther.  He had challenged the authority of both the empire and the church. In his writings and teachings, he had launched what we now call the Reformation. 

            In January, 1521, he was called before an imperial council – the Diet of Worms (my favorite name of any event in history). Confronted by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, he was ordered to recant his words.  Facing the power of the Roman Empire, Martin Luther said, “Here I stand.  I can do no other.  God help me.”

            The result was the council’s determination that Luther was a criminal and subject to arrest and execution.  He was hidden in a castle in Wartburg, Germany under the watchful eye of Frederick the Wise.

            Martin Luther certainly knew fear in that moment.  But he also knew that he was graspedby something much greater.

            We have benefited richly from his courage.

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            The followers of Jesus were fearful, too.  The women who had discovered the empty tomb were afraid.  The disciples, gathered in the upper room, were fearful. They had seen their rabbi executed like a common criminal on a rocky hillside outside the city walls of Jerusalem.

            They were afraid of the Roman authorities, who wielded the power to execute. They trembled at the thought of the religious leaders, especially the wealthy Sadducees, who were in cahoots with the Romans.

            So, they kept to themselves.  Until the moment depicted in the Book of Acts today:

“When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

            The Gospel according to John’s account of Pentecost makes it very clear that the disciples were afraid and were in a locked room.  But something overcame that fear.

            It was the movement, in a powerful way, of God’s spirit – the Holy Spirit – transforming their trembling hearts and timid souls into the bud of the greatest evangelical movement in history.

            We are told by the Book of Acts that they left the room and ventured into the crowded streets of Jerusalem – packed by the crowds in the city for the Jewish Feast of Weeks, also known as Shavuot.  The crowds were celebrating the wheat harvest and God’s gift of the Law at Mt. Sinai 1,200 years earlier.

            So, this was not a small crowd.  For the disciples to venture into that crowd on a new mission might be like a teen-age actress, in her first performance, appearing in a popular Broadway show.

            But venture into the streets they did.  In a variety of tongues, they began to proclaim the gospel – unhindered by their fear, and aware that there was something much greater at stake.

            That Holy Spirit moving through them even prompted Peter, who had denied his best friend only a short time before, to preach the first Christian sermon:

"Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
`In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, 
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams. 
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy. 
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day. 
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.' "

            Hearts were turned. People found a new way of seeing and experiencing their relationship to God. Like on the beaches of Normandy, the world began to change.

            The Church still can speak the truth when inspired by the Spirit.  We can do so by overcoming fear with a deep and profound awareness that there is something much greater at stake.

            After all, it is not we who give voice to those words – when we speak the truth.  It is the Spirit which moves us.

            We, too, can know the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.  I stand here today as one who has been touched by its ability to make life new.  You can, too. Your life can be changed.  But you must open yourself to that divine possibility – releasing the fear, and recognizing that something greater is at stake.

Monday, June 3, 2019

History of Brokenness Repeated

PROPERS:         7 EASTER, YEAR C    
TEXT:                 ACTS 16:16-34

ONE SENTENCE:        The inexorable movement of God through history                                                involves the repetition of sin and brokenness, but moves                                      toward the realization of a New Creation.     

           The world is moving toward a new creation.
            But, it seems slow in getting there.  It appears that history repeats itself.

            Consider the story from Acts today.

            Paul and Silas have traveled to Philippi in Macedonia.  This was an ancient city in modern-day Greece, just south of modern-day Bulgaria and just north of the Aegean Sea.  They were on Paul’s second missionary journey – an earnest effort to introduce the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the known world.

            I did not know Paul, of course.  Our lives were separated by 2,000 years of history.  But I suspect he was an intense man, not tolerant of distractions or frivolity. So, when the woman with a spirit of divination went about with him and loudly proclaimed who he was and what his mission was – he was irked.

            Tired of the woman’s shouts, Paul turned and proclaimed: “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!” The spirit of divination immediately left her.

            Now, this would seem to be a good thing.  But not to her owners. Yes, she was owned.  And her owners received large amounts of cash from her fortune-telling.  No more.  And they were not pleased.

            Their profiting off this woman they ownedhad come to an end.  She was a free person – at least as free as a woman in that culture could be.

            Her owners complained to the authorities.  Paul and Silas were thrown in jail.  There they waited.

            It was there that God moved, we are told.  As Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns in their dungeon cell, an earthquake shook the city.  The locks of their cell were unfastened… but they remained.

            The jailer, fearing their escape, was about to kill himself when Paul called out to him: “Do not fear!  We are still here.”

            The grateful jailer took them to his home, bound their wounds, and fed them. Then Paul shared the Good News with the jailer’s household, and they were baptized.

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            This is a microcosm of human history.

            We can see – with great clarity – how the brokenness of human history has been repeated again and again throughout history.  We see how human sin – with human will overwhelming God’s ways – has been manifested in our culture.  The last three hundred years are a good example.

            But in stories such as this one from the Book of Acts, we see the hand of God determining the outcome. We see hope.  We see that we are not alone. It shows us the accelerated history of God’s movement through time, from injustice to freedom, from bondage to release, and from sin into new life.

            It testifies to the truth of Dr. Martin Luther King’s words:  The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.

            We sowant it to move more quickly. Sometimes it seems that the clock and the calendar are moving backwards.  That is especially true these days.  But I take hope in two approaches to the brokenness and sin all around us. One is secular, the other is scriptural.

            Psychological theory notes this:  Regression precedes a consolidation of gains.  In other words, when things move backward, it is a means by which we, as individuals or as a culture, incorporate the hard-earned gains we have realized. They become a more firm part of who we are and how we live.

            As culture regresses to old behaviors, we are actually strengthening the gains of the immediate past.  We will be stronger when we emerge from the back-sliding.

            That is one observation – the secular one.  The other is scriptural – from the Book of Job.

            Job had been a righteous man.  He had been a follower of God throughout his life.  But he got caught in a wager between Satan and God – with Satan saying that Job’s faith would not survive severe testing.

            God gives Satan a free hand, and the result is devastating. Job loses everything– houses, family, herds, and crops.  He sits in ashes, scraping his sores with a pot sherd. 

            Job’s so-called comfortersurge him to curse God, but Job refuses.  He remains faithful.  But he finally gives-in, and he challenges God.  He questions God’s justice in the world.

            In one of the most beautiful passages in all of scripture, God responds to Job’s challenge:

        Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:

 “Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.

 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?”                   (Job 38:1-7)

            As Christians, we wait for the fulfillment of God’s reign.  We see images of it in scripture.  We hear Jesus tell us what it will be like when we realize that new world in its fullness. But, like Job, we must wait, and we must be humble – trusting that though we cannot know God’s ways, we are confident in them.

            Hymn 534 in our hymnal expresses it well:

            God is working his purpose out,
            as year succeeds to year,
            God is working his purpose out,
            and the time is drawing near;
            nearer and near comes the time,
            the time that will surely be,
            when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
            as the waters cover the seas.”