Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Devotion - Tuesday, January 16

Can I offer you a word of critique, without it being heard as a criticism?

This morning I was reading Hebrews 5:7-14.  The closing verses express a frustration: "About this we have much to say which is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing."  The writer goes on to say "You need milk, not solid food."

There is only one way to become more knowledgeable about our bibles.  That is to read our bibles.  There is only one way to learn the history of the Christian family.  That is to study this history.

It may seem like a daunting task - to suddenly know the bible.  Out of frustration, too many will fail to start.

It is a new year.  Make yourself a promise, a simple promise.  In the next four months, read one book of the bible's many books.  Get out a piece of paper and take some notes.  Write down your questions.  Ask me or another mentor of yours.

There is milk enough to nourish and sustain all of God's little ones.  That milk will never run out or be taken away.  It would be helpful for a few to move toward more solid food.  And that move begins with the smallest and most achievable of goals.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Devotion - Monday, January 15

You will have no classes today, in observance of the M.L. King, Jr. Holiday.  You know this.  But I wonder if you know how contentious has been the decision to have this day as a holiday?

It was not universally and immediately agreed that there should be an ML King Holiday.  In fact, many fought against it and refused to comply.  

You can do your own search of the web for reasons, and there were (are) many.  What I want to say to you this morning is doing God's work is never going to result in a joyous outburst in the world.  When God's Word and God's mission are lifted up, change is called for and folks become uncomfortable.

Rev King insisted that this nation of ours match its religious talk with the way we looked upon all our sisters and brothers.  He spoke first of race, then he began to speak of poverty.  He asked for justice and he insisted on the dignity of each individual regardless of their skin color, wealth, or prominence in society.  

It was one bullet which took his life; but there were many who wanted him silenced.

Observe ML King Day appropriately.  Consider well how the world responds when the word of God is spoken and applied in our community.  It remains a battle (a life-robing battle) to see that the least among us are fed, clothed, visited, and set free.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Devotion - Thursday, January 11

John 14:14 - "If you ask anything in my name, I will do it."

This is a promise Jesus made to his disciples.  This is a promise to which Jesus' disciples have continued to cling.  It is a promise which demonstrates Jesus' care for us and compassion toward us.

It is not a promise which Jesus fails to keep.

We sometimes fail in our application of this promise.  Jesus is put to the test - asked for things which would satisfy our curiosity or prove our convictions.  This promise is mis-heard as a wishing-wand or as a magic trick.

Jesus wants what we want.  Jesus touches the sick and transforms the lives of the broken.  John 14:14 encourages us to "ask," but Jesus already knows and Jesus is as eager as we to see the hurting stop and the world made right.

So Jesus makes this promise to us.  And this promise resonates in our ears and in our hearts and in our lives.  We cling to it and see in it just how precious we are to the Word made flesh, to the creator of the cosmos.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Devotion - Wednesday, January 10

This mornings readings included Jeremiah 23:1-8.  The prophet speaks of the work God will do to call back together his people.  The image is of a shepherd who locates the lost sheep and makes of them one flock.

I love this image.  It is powerful and comforting.

It is an image much larger than the smallness of my own experience, but it does open my eyes to the significance of what God is doing now.  While I celebrate with you the time you had away from school and this place, it is powerful and comforting to see you return and for this community to be restored.

On Monday I helped with Orientation for transfer students.  They have it rough - coming in at the middle of the year; coming in as juniors.  So much of what we do to welcome folks as part of the August rush is not repeated in January.  The experience reminded me how fortunate we are to have one another, as a buffer against all the stresses and strains and challenges.

God is calling us into the community of Jesus.  God serves as the shepherd who gathers us and leads us and makes of us a powerful and comforting flock.  I hope you can see it, too.  And that you will be sustained by the love and care and support of one another.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Sermon - Baptism of our Lord - Year B

Mark 1:4-11; Acts 19:1-7                                                                     

                                                            Be Silent and Receive the Gift

            Sermons are supposed to answer questions, not ask them.  But I have a question for you this morning, “Why was Jesus baptized?”  He was not baptized in the same way that you and I are baptized.  Our baptism is into the death and resurrection of Jesus.  We are baptized in the name of the LORD Jesus - thus the necessity (pointed out in our second lesson for this morning) for those in Ephesus to receive the lying on of hands.  Their baptism, John's baptism, was in some way different from the baptism practiced by the Christian community.

            So why was Jesus baptized?  Especially since the baptism he received was John's baptism.

            I hate to ask questions and then fail to provide an answer but I have to tell you now that I am not going to come up with one any time in the next eleven minutes.  There are theories and explanations; there are doctrines and theological justifications - but there is not a final answer to the question of why Jesus was baptized.  It is one of those things which just happens.  We are at a loss to explain it - but somehow it speaks to us and Jesus’ baptism becomes an important part of our experience of God.

            But we are rational people.  We like explanations.  Many of us are academicians.  We spend our lives looking for answers.  So it bothers us, not knowing why was Jesus baptized.  Why did he receive John's baptism? 

            Our Gospel lesson for this morning is very clear what it meant by John's baptism, it was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mk 1.4).  John's baptism was offered to that brood of vipers, who had somehow been warned to flee from the wrath to come.  It was a ceremo­nial bathing associated with one's decision to turn their life around.

            The people who came out to John, listened to his sermons and became aware of how far they had drifted from the places God wanted them to be.  Those who entered the waters of the Jordan River had come to realize their sinfulness and they were acknowledging their desire to do better. 

            I do not mean to minimize the importance of a baptism of repen­tance - but it is not the same thing as the baptism we cele­brate in the Christian church.  a baptism in the Christian Church is a baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  We baptize one into the death and resurrection of Christ.

            The story in Acts 19 exposes this difference.  Paul is passing through Ephesus when he encounters some disciples.  He asks them if they had received the Holy Spirit.  Actually he asks them if they received the Holy Spirit when they became believers - a subtle comment perhaps - but one that does raise the question of what is absolutely essential for one to be considered a disciple of Jesus.  Here is a group whose theology did not even include the Holy Spirit yet Paul addresses them as brothers and sisters in the faith.  Sometimes we get awfully picky about what one has to believe or confess or do before we will consider them a part of the community of Christ.  Paul seems much more willing to accept these folks - even though there is a gaping hole in their theological fabric.

            Paul encounters these folks in Ephesus and asks them if they had received the Holy Spirit.  As he tries to understand why they haven't even heard of the Holy Spirit, he hits upon the symbol of baptism.  These believers had received a baptism of repentance - they had come to an awareness of their sinfulness and their need to turn to God.  But they had failed to receive the gift of baptism into Jesus - they had not experienced the confidence associated with the Spirit's coming to dwell in the very midst of their lives.  Their baptism was all about what they had decided to do – the baptism to which Paul wished to expose them is all about what God intended to do.

            If we accept the Biblical witness regarding Jesus, then we must admit that he had no need for John's baptism.  Scripture speaks of him as one who knew no sin.  So why would scripture include this story of his baptism (a baptism for repentance) at the hand of John?

            Again – I have no final answer.  I will acknowledge with you that Jesus’ baptism by John seems to be a way to link his life with the lives of those who would later be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  His baptism unites him with those who are being baptized.  His baptism yokes him with the baptism of you and me. 

            It is not that Jesus needed to be or had to be baptized – he wanted to be.  He wanted to share our life and our experience and he wanted to give us hope and promise.  And so, Jesus was baptized.  And in so doing, he transforms baptism.

            After his baptism, after his death, after his resurrection; baptism became a way of experiencing this desire on the part of our Messiah.  Baptism became the way that we could once again acknowledge that a God who didn’t have to do something, did do something.  Did it because God wanted to be a part of our lives and our world.  Did it, so that we might never again have to bear the weight of our sin.  Did it, so that having been set free from the burden of our transgressions we would be free to love and serve God.  God didn’t have to do this; God wanted to do this.

            We baptize, not as some outward sign of an inward change of heart.  We baptize, in order to provide physical confirmation of a spiritual reality. 

            The Church has never doubted that God may be found along a stream or in a baby’s cry or in the midst of a beautiful piece of music.  We may experience God in any number of settings.  What we believe and teach is while God may be present to you in those places, there are two places where God promises to be present.  One is at the table where we share The Eucharist and the other is in the baptismal waters.  God’s desire to enter our world is made real in God’s promise to enter our lives through baptism.

            By now you have caught on that I am really not all that interested in an answer to the question, “Why was Jesus baptized?”  The answer toward which I move is “Why are we baptized?”  True, there a number of writings, and scripture itself speaks of our baptism as a baptism of cleansing.  But Christian baptism is not John’s baptism.  It is not a baptism of repentance.  It is a baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ.  Whereas John’s baptism looks at the change of heart made by a sinner, a Christian baptism has God’s activity as its focus.

            The baptism of John addresses what we plan to do.  The Baptism of Our Lord speaks of what God is doing.


Amen.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sermon - Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20    

                                                          “Welcome Home” for Christmas

I don’t know if you are likely as me to read church signs as you drive down the highway.  A few years ago I noticed a whole book of them, in the country-store area at the Cracker Barrel.  There must be a newsletter or an on-line resource or folks are just really quick in copying each other, because once a creative church sign goes up, it seems to go up at a lot of places at the same time.

My new favorite from this Christmas season; spotted somewhere down near Ware Shoals reads: “Are you part of the Inn group, or one of the stable few?”  Get it?  “Inn group,” spelled i-n-n, the inn where there is no room for Mary and Joseph.  “Stable few”?  There were only a few who gathered in the “stable” in order to adore the Christ Child.  Maybe it loses something when you can’t read it for yourself; it surely loses a lot when someone tries to explain what it means.  Sorry about that….

My all-time favorite sign message is somewhere between here and the church where I spent my first 20 Christmas eves.  That might have something to do with it.  My number one, all-time favorite church sign had a very simple message.  It read:  “Come Home for Christmas.” 

At the risk of ruining another creative message, let me try to explain why this one moves me so deeply.

“Come Home for Christmas.” 

The Christmas story is built upon the lack of a “home” for baby Jesus and his family.  The Christmas story exposes that home is not so much a physical place as it is a place of welcome and comfort.  The Christmas story invites its hearers to enter into the discussion about what it means to come home and to be at home and to have a home.

In ways more powerful than any family celebration I have ever attended, the story of this Holy Night is a story which settles our yearning for safety and security and contentment.

Where else could we come, or go, in order to be more at home, than in a place surrounded by others hearing the good news of a God who creates a home for each of us, and then comes to make his home among us?


“Come Home for Christmas.”

The phrase stuck with me.  I thought of it as I listened to the music being played on my “Country Christmas” Pandora station.  Particularly at night, in the evenings, as many are wrapping gifts, a huge number of the songs were about “coming home.”  Many of the songs were familiar; but I can’t remember the words of them all.  It is okay for me to admit that I sometimes have difficulty remembering the second verse of “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful,” but I can sing right along without hesitation to Rascal Flatts’ rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”  Might the same be said for some of you?

“Home.”  Being at home.  Going home.  This hope, this promise, this is the desire is just below the surface of practically every conversation had during this time of year.  There are few gifts considered as precious as the simple gift of “coming home.”

 I had most of last week off, as vacation.  Today was my first real day back.  I should have kept a count at this morning’s worship service of how many folks asked me if I had gone “home” last weekend.  I did get up to North Carolina, but that isn’t why I mention it here.  Rather, it is to point out that I have lived in Clemson longer than I ever lived in Vale.  So why, when you who also live here ask me if I will travel to North Carolina, do you ask me if I am going to make it “home”? Isn’t this my “home”?  Isn’t this “home” for both of us?

“Come home for Christmas.” 

Or course it isn’t the “place” which beckons us – it is something else.  It is the returning to or going to that place where the shoes come off and the collar is loosened and the hair comes down and we experience what it means to be loved and appreciated and accepted and cared for and protected. 

That place is the place we all desire to be and long to be.  It is the place we go to and return to and come to. 

My hope for you, for all of us, as we sit together on this Christmas Eve, in this house of worship is that you are gifted with that same feeling of being were the shoes can come off, the tie loosened, and the anxiety level reduced.  My prayer is that each of you feel the relief associated with being “home.”

This is the hope and the gift for each of you.  Whether you are a regular attendee at the Sunday services offered in this place; whether you are an adult who came here with your parents when you were a child; whether you are a traveler, holed up in a hotel room or camper; whether you are a local who wanted to be at home tonight even if these buildings and their occupants have failed to make you feel at home during the previous fifty-two weeks; whatever your status before you came through those doors – you are at home now.  And the owner of this house is committed to making your homecoming all that you desire it to be.

Mary and Joseph were at home on this evening, in Bethlehem.  They were at home with their son.  Their home included shepherds sent their way by angels singing in the heavens.  Mary and Joseph found out that evening what home really means.  And ever since we have known that we can come home or return home or be at home in any one of the millions of places where the story of Jesus’ birth is retold.

What a joy.  What a delight.  What a gift.


Amen.

Sermon - Advent 4 - Year B

Luke 1:26-38
                                                                     How Can This Be?


“How can this be?”  This is Mary’s response to the news the angel shares with her.  “How can this be?”

And what the angel tells her is difficult to believe.  I mean – can you believe it?  Do you believe it?  Do you live your life in a way which bears witness to the news shared by the angel?

What the angel tells Mary forever changes the way mere mortals understand themselves and their role in the cosmos. 

The angel tells Mary that God – GOD – is leaving behind the heavens and taking on the very flesh and blood which mortals too often seek to abandon.

The angel tells Mary that God – GOD – is entangling Himself with the very creatures whom He created and entrusting these creatures to carry to term His own life.

What the angel tells Mary forever changes the way we understand ourselves and our role in the cosmos. 

How can this be?

Some of you have, no doubt, moved on to the second phrase uttered by Mary in verse 34.  Ah, but here is where your drive for logical explanations stands in the way of the reception of spiritual insight.  Tradition reminds us that Mary is a virgin, and too often (yes – I did say TOO OFTEN) we fixate on this and thus fail to comprehend the true magnitude of what the angel tells Mary.

Put this in perspective; and consider the magnitude of each.  A virgin giving birth – and – God turning to a human in order to accomplish His will.  Consider these two, and evaluate the magnitude of each.

I am as aware of biology as any of you.  But my working knowledge of biology tends to diminish the magnitude of a biological creature giving birth without the aid of another.  I know that I trust news sources that are not trusted by some of you.  Is the BBC on that list?  The BBC has an article – on line – titled “Spectacular real virgin births.”  Read it if you wish.

Maybe I am more aware that some of you, of the magnitude of the other statement I have asked you to ponder.  A virgin giving birth is one thing; but God entrusting his fate to a human carrier is the truly astounding storyline of the angel’s announcement.

Think of all the places that this plan of God’s could have gone wrong.  In the account of the story told by Matthew, Joseph considers putting Mary away, quietly.  “Quietly”!!!!  There was no way to quietly put away a young woman who was found to be with child outside of wedlock.  Maybe some of you have lived in big cities where such a thing could happen, but not in a small village of a couple hundred or possibly a thousand.  Think of how well things are kept “quiet” in this little town.

The best Joseph could do was to return Mary to the home of her father where, if folks didn’t get all riled up, she could bear her child and live her life under the protection of her daddy.  Under her daddy’s protection, till he died.  Then.  Who knows.  What Joseph was willing to do was to ignore Mary’s pregnancy and not expose her to the appropriate recourse of the day – death by stoning.

How Joseph responds to the news shared by the angel is only one step in the process.  And see how terribly wrong it could have gone?  What about crib death?  Or infant malnutrition?  Or measles, whooping cough, or a thousand other diseases to which Mary and Joseph might unknowingly allow this child to be exposed?

Am I beginning to impress upon you the magnitude of the news the angel shares with Mary?  Mary, a fragile, simple, humble, impoverished human being is given the opportunity (she might have felt it was the responsibility) of carrying into the world the very presence and being of God.

Let me say that again:  Mary, an unknown, nobody from the far reaches of the civilized world is being pulled into partnership with God to forever change and transform the way the world will see itself – as well as the way the world will perceive of God.

Forget the virgin birth.  This other part of the announcement is what is amazing.

Have I swayed you?  Are you beginning to see this perspective?  Cause I’ve got one more thing to say – and it really is the point I want to make out of all of this.

Ready?

Placing the emphasis on a virgin birth allows us to escape the impact of the angel’s announcement.  “How can this be?  For I am a virgin.” Distracts us and allows us to hear the announcement as one meant for Mary and Mary alone.  Placing the emphasis on a virgin birth allows us to exit ourselves from the story and fail to comprehend the way in which God is entrusting us with carrying to term his purpose and his gift to the world.

“How can this be?”  is our reaction practically any time it dawns on us that God’s work is dependent on our hands. 

“How can this be?” is our attempt to dismiss or diminish the significance of how we are called to live our lives in the aftermath of the angel’s announcement.

“How can this be?”  that God would turn to us and depend upon us to ward off the dangers and perils which threaten His life?

“How can this be?”

The Christmas story forever changes the way we see God and our role in the world.  The angels serve to tell us what God intends and to announce what God hopes from us.  But the angels were not sent, into this world of pain, to do in Jesus’ name, the do the work that was left for you and me to do.

I do not want to suggest that virgin births happen every day.  They are rare enough that even the BBC has to do searching for spectacular occurrences.  Unfortunately, another aspect of the angel’s words do not happen every day, either.  We do not respond like Mary.

The God which Christianity seeks to reveal has made it clear, on a clear night in Bethlehem.  If the world is going to change, it will change because of those whom God has visited and asked to bear His word.  If God’s will is to be done, it will need to be done by the Mary and Joseph’s who are shown how to be kind and caring and humble and serving.  And then live lives consistent with what has been revealed to them.

How can this be?

I don’t know. 

I only know that it is.


Amen.