Tuesday, November 29, 2005

ADVENT II: RCL texts for Dec. 4, 2005

First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11: Verse 4: "Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places plain."

I have lived in and around the Appalachian mountains about half my life; the first 20 years or so and now the last 4. A lot of things happened in the intervening 25 years, to me and to the mountains.

If you ask most North Carolinians they will tell you that the next thing after Asheville going West is the Tennessee line. This is true is you're going due West, but if you go Southwest, there's another 2 hour drive before you leave NC.

I remember the first time I came out to Hinton, in the "Far West" as it is called. It was in the late 1970's and it took forever. Up and down hills, along creek bottoms, following "old 64" a paved, two lane road. I think we left Lake Junaluska west of Asheville about 1 PM and got to Hinton Center just in time for dinner at 5:30.

Now, in 2005, I can be to Lake Junaluska in about an hour and a half. Most of it is four lane, the worst of it is ten times better than the best of it 30 years ago.

In order to do it, they had to follow the directions of our text; they lifted up the valleys,
made low the hills and mountains, leveled out the rough places.

While I have my doubts about the long term good of opening up the Great Smokies to more and more cars and pollution, one thing is certain; it provided ease of travel for the people who live here and those who want to come here.

Of course, the text has to do not with road-grading, but with the preparattion of the heart, of making it easy, or easier, for the Holy to come in. Sometimes we act as though Spirituality should be difficult, arduous, a trek. Well, maybe our journey should be hard, but our journey is the process of clearing the road, of getting things out of the way, of removing the stumbling blocks to God, so that when God comes, God easily can get to us, hopefully in time for dinner.

Second Reading: 2 Peter 3:8-15a - verese 9 "The LORD is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance."

What does it mean to repent? Does it mean to feel sorry, or does it mean to be really, really sorry that you got caught? Well, neither really. Those things are signified by feeling remorse, by being rueful but repentance is not a feeling, it is an action. And it is not a one time, took care of that mistake type of action; rather it is a complete reorientation change of life type of action.

Repentance means to turn from one thing to another, in this case to turn from sin to God. As such, it is not a matter of looking back on the past and feeling sorry for screwing up.
It is more a looking to the future and seeing oneself as a changed person, living fully and honestly in and with God. The only thing it has to do with the past is the turning away from the past in order to embrace God's future.

GOSPEL: Mark 1:1-8 - Verse 1: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."

My oldest son has always been something of a cryptic writer. He hates to waste words, which is a good thing, most of the time. All through High School I read and edited his papers and continually had to goad him into unpacking his dense prose to make it more understandable. He wrote like the mathematician he is, using words as symbols and sentences as equations.

I was reminded of this tendency over the Thanksgiving break when he asked me to read his Departmental Honors paper. It's about computer science and physics and math and astronomy and radio satalite data and . . . well, you get the idea. He really has improved his writing. I was able to understand those parts an educated amateur should have understood, but he did have a few lapses into sentence as equation, but not too bad.

This first line of Mark's Gospel reminded me a bit of David's writing, a whole lot crammed into a few words, a formula, an equation almost. It's not even a sentence, there's no verb. It's more like a title or a sulatation.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Very first line and Mark lays it all out there. Good News, Christ, Son of God. These are not idle words, throwaway lines, Mark is not a good writer, but he is not a careless one either. Let me restate that. Mark is a good writer with a limited Greek vocabulary and he uses that vocabulary pointedly to make his case plain.

As we move into the Advent/pre-Christmas time, Mark's words are a good reminder to us that we are about serious business. About gospel business. It's not just time to trim the tree and give presents and parties. It's time to remember about the one who came as a baby with a threat of death over his head, the one who left heaven's comfort to muck around down here with us, the one who is our LORD, but who chose to be our servant.

It is a mysterious time in which we have an opportunity to play round with the meanings of God's obscure equations in our lives.



Wednesday, November 23, 2005

ADVENT I: RCL Texts for Nov. 27, 2005

I decided this week to publish my sermon for Sunday, a sermon which will be delivered to 15 to 20 people in a "house church" in a retirement community in the mountains of NC. Like Tip O'Neill famously sai of politics, "All preaching is local."

Advent 1
November 27, 2005
Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9
I Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37
Title: Of Waiting and Watching

My Mother-in-law, flat out, makes the best biscuits I ever ate. That is no exaggeration. I could have the sworn affidavits of 25 men who lived in my Dorm at Guilford College at a moment’s notice. Those biscuits are good.

Back when I was a freshman in college, Deborah was still in High School, and I used to go to see her every week-end, a 200 mile round-trip. And every week-end her mother would make me a huge batch of ham biscuits on Sunday afternoon, to take back to college with me.
She was afraid I was starving to death on the College food plan.

I had one of those big Tupperware bowls, I mean big, like a dish-pan. And she would fry up country ham and bake biscuits, and put the ham in the biscuits and pack that Tupperware Bowl full. I kept it on the seat of my 1966 Rambler American as I drove through the North Carolina countryside, eating as many as I could hold during the two-hour trip, because I knew those were all I would get; for I had made the mistake of sharing them with my room-mate once,
and now every Sunday night, ravenous 18 and 19 year old men/boys gathered in my room,
waiting to descend upon that Tupperware Bowl.

I was a very popular fellow at Guilford College, and I owed it all to my girlfriend’s mother’s ham biscuits.

They were terribly unhealthy, I’m sure. Bleached white flour and lard and buttermilk; mixed in a carved wooden bowl that was kept under the sink.But my goodness, they were good.
Even today, just thinking about them makes my mouth water. In the years since Deborah and I married, the frequency with which we visit the farm in Goldsboro NC has dwindled,
from once a month to our current once a year. But, through the years, every time I went,
those biscuits were a constant fixture in the visit.

We would arrive, and there would be a table laden with food, and Jean would say, "Good, you’re here. I can put the biscuits in now." I never told her that the biscuits alone would have been enough for me.

A few years ago, we drove over, arriving deep into the night, so of course, there was no dinner waiting for us. We had told them we would eat on the way. For the last 200 miles, all I could think about was those biscuits. I was sure we would get there, and pile into our beds,
and sleep late the next morning, only to be awakened by the sounds and smells of coffee perking and ham frying and biscuits baking. My mouth watered, my tongue played around my lips. While my family slept, I kept myself awake through the Carolina countryside by thinking of all the ways I would eat Jean’s biscuits; buttered, with jelly, with apple butter, with red-eye gravy, with country ham, with sausage, etc.

The next morning, I awoke, and indeed I smelled the coffee, and the ham frying and I heard the oven door opening and shutting. I got up, washed my face and wandered into the kitchen. I walked over to the table.

Why, there was my old Tupperware bowl, covered with a clean dishtowel, filled with ham biscuits. I smiled at Jean, closed my eyes, reached my hand under that dish towel and grabbed a ham biscuit and put it in my mouth and .......

argh, what is this? This is not one of your biscuits. What is this?

My mother-in-law looked at me blankly and said, "Oh, I don’t make them from scratch anymore. I used the canned ones. They’re so much easier."

I had waited, anticipated, planned, prepared, visioned, this moment; and suddenly, it was wrenched away from me in the blink of an eye. All I had hoped for; gone in the name of progress and convenience. It was, for me, a heart-breaking moment.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the time when we begin to wait, to watch, to prepare and plan and anticipate, to envision; God’s future in our midst. It is a time in which our vision of the future can be clouded by our memories of the past.

Indeed, our entire vison of the future can be simply a recreation of what was, so much so that we are unwilling and unable to receive the future God has in store for us.

For many of us, Advent is the time to get ready for Christmas, and our vision of what Christmas will be like has been shaped by our "fuzzy memories" of Christmas past. We have a tendency to forget the uncomfortable moments, the faux paus, the loneliness and the bad parties; those things fade away, and all we remember is the good stuff. And in the glow of the ever present Christmas publicity machine, a Vision of this years Christmas grows, and we do all within our power to make that Vision a reality; and. . . .argh, it almost never happens. Someone, unwittingly, slips some canned biscuits in on us. Things go wrong, we spend too much money, some relative or the other makes an uncomfortable scene about something we didn’t think was important. And so it goes. And somehow, Christmas isn’t as special as we had hoped it would be.

Which is what happens when we build our dreams for the future on fractured and fuzzy memories of the past. We create a hope for a world`that will never be out of the pieces of a world that never was.

All three of our Scripture lessons are about being ready; about being ready for God to act and act decisively in the world and in our lives. And, there is nothing in these texts about building that vision of the future on the recovery of some past Glory of our own. In our texts; God is doing totally new and unprecedented and unexpected things because God is loving and merciful.
In Isaiah, the prophet is speaking to people in exile, people whose nation does not exist anymore. Isreal has been conquered and wiped out, erased from the political map.
Yet Isaiah says something new, and impossible and unheard of is getting ready to happen.

Paul writes to the church in Corinth to remind them not to build their hopes for the future on their past. Indeed, he calls them to break with their past, to continue to wait for the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of the future.

And in our Gospel lesson, Jesus reminds us that we cannot know when or how
God will act; so, we must always be ready, and being ready means being about the Lord’s business TODAY, with our eyes on the future, not on the past.

So, what does that mean for us here, today, at Holy Family. Well, it means a number of things.
1)It means we must enjoy our Christmas; but not lay more weight on it than it can bear. We must realize that our memories of the past are filtered through a lens of time and desire, and that no Christmas was ever as good or as bad as we remember it, so we should go easy on the anticipation and smile when somebody hands us some "canned biscuits".

2) We must take time this Advent season to watch and pray and seek a new vision,
a vision of the new thing God is doing in our midst, God is building a new church, a new community of faith.

3) We must commit ourselves to that new vision. We must commit ourselves to this new thing God is doing in, with and through us. For we are fulfilling Isaiah’s vision,
we are building the Lord’s house on the mountain,
we are creating a place where many people shall come to worship.
God is acting in us to create a house of the God of Jacob
in which we can teach God’s ways,
in which people shall learn to walk in God’s path.
We are building our Vision for all God’s children,
and it will be like nothing we have ever seen or heard before.



Tuesday, November 15, 2005

CHRIST THE KING: RCL texts for Nov. 20, 2005

FIRST READING: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
“I will search for my sheep…” My oldest son, David, is a big boy now; 22 years old, a 6’8” student and member of the Crew at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. But he was a little boy once; little and vulnerable and in need of protection. And we lost him once, in the Mall on I-85 in Concord, North Carolina.
We were in a shop, his mother and I. It was in late November or early December, a Christmas shopping expedition. There was a crowd. I don’t remember for sure, but it may have been a day when there was a concert by the High School Band and I came to see kids from the youth group at Church. Anyway, one minute he was there, the next minute neither his mother not I knew where he was.

We were frantic, up and down the mall, looking in stores, calling his name, trying to find security, focused on one thing and one thing only; finding our boy and taking him home. After what seemed like forever, he turned up. He too was scared, he knew he was lost, and he wanted his Mommy most of all.

Every time I wonder how God feels about me, or you, or anybody, I remember this text from Ezekiel, and the story of the 90 and 9 and the one lost sheep and the Prodigal Son, and I remember how I felt when my son slipped out of my grasp and my sight; and then I remember how I felt when he was found again, and I know, oh I know, how God feels about me, and about you and about all of us.

SECOND READING: Ephesians 1:15-23
“having the eyes of your heart enlightened . . .” I’ve always loved that phrase. I’ve never been real sure what it means, but I have always loved it.

I am pretty sure it has to do with changing the way one looks at things, with having a paradigm shift of the soul, like the one I had with the church back when I was in college.

I always had a love/hate (no make that a hate/love, I hated more than I loved) relationship with the church. Or as I put it then, I loved Jesus and hated so-called Christians. (I was 19-20 years old. Consistent theology is for old folks ;-) )

I hated them for being smug and bigoted and racist and middle-class and less than heroic in following the radical gospel. And, of course, I knew myself to be none of those things.

I took an Old Testament Course in my Junior Year at UNC, because it filled a Humanities requirement. The Professor was a Presbyterian Minister, Dr. Bernard Boyd. I had the eyes of my heart enlightened in that fall semester.

I’m not sure what happened, but I started the semester with no use for the church and I ended it ready to go to seminary. I had had the eyes of my heart enlightened about God’s love for all of us, about God’s love for “those people” in spite of their inadequacies and most especially, God’s love for me in spite of MY inadequacies.

GOSPEL: Matthew 25:31-46
“the least of these . . . “
Sometime in the early 90’s, I went to the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in downtown Atlanta for a “Chrism Mass” with my Bishop and my fellow Lutheran Clergy from North Georgia. A Chrism Mass is a renewal of Ordination vows and is usually done in the Lenten season.

Lutherans in the US don’t have Cathedrals, but if we did, Redeemer would fit the bill for Atlanta. It is quite a place. Very traditional, dark, High Altar, stone, dark wood, Gothic accoutrements. At 7:00 Am, we Lutheran Clergy felt a bit like medieval monks gathered for Matins as we stumbled into the choir stalls, listened to the Bishop’s sermon, repeated our promises of faithfulness to the Scriptures, the Confessions and our appointed duties. We took Communion, we sang, we prayed, and then we retired to a Dining Room for breakfast.

This was no church basement “donuts on a napkin and coffee in Styrofoam cups”
Repast. This was a meal. A group of “Church Ladies” had set out a feast of eggs and grits and sausage balls and fruit cups and fruit juices and strong coffee on tables covered with starched and ironed table cloths, fine china and sterling silver knives and forks.
We lowly preachers were having a high old time.

I left early and tried to find my way to the back parking lot, but I got turned around and found myself on the sidewalk on the East side of the church. The door clicked shut and locked behind me as I looked down Fourth street toward Peachtree and saw a gathering of Atlanta’s homeless, huddled against the outside stone wall of the church, trying to block the early morning mist with newspapers and cardboard boxes. They were waiting for the soup kitchen in the basement to open.

I walked down the sidewalk, feeling conspicuous in my black suit and collar and gold cross around my neck. As I got to the corner and turned left, I glanced up and if I held my head just right, I could see into the dining room where the Lutheran Clergy, warm and well-fed, supped in luxury while also seeing the poor and homeless of Atlanta, stretched out in the cold and damp, waiting for a bowl of soup in a dank basement.

And I had to think? Which crowd would Jesus eat with? And what’s he going to say to me about all this? Remember, the least of these . . .



Friday, November 11, 2005

PENTECOST 26: RCL Texts for November 13, 2005

Note to readers: Sorry about the late post this week. I've been out rambling, doing my day job duties. Someone said they didn't know how to comment without setting up their own blog. I think all you do is click on the "0 comments" after my name at the end and it takes you to a response place. You do have to give a name and create a password.

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; I Thess. 5:1-11, Matthew 25: 14-30
Today's lessons deal with themes of judgement, particularly the coming Grand, Final, Apocalypic, Set Everything Straight kind of Judgement of God. Rather than comment on the texts themselves this week, I am going to share a couple of personal stories and one from Church History that might spark something for you.

Story 1: When I was a kid, we have week-long revivals in the Spring and the Fall at Slate Mountain Missionary Baptist Church where was Grandfather was Head Deacon and Treasurer for 10-20 years ( not a little power hoarding there). The "Evangelist" generally centered on
issues of Jesus coming again in judgement, spent a lot of time on the lake of fire, and most time on the rapture and how the Christians would be taken up to heaven and the evil people left behind (hence the title of the book series).

When I was 12 or 13, I was mighty shy and mighty scared of going to Hell. If there was any way to get saved and accept Christ and avoid Hellfire other than going down to the front of the church during the "invitation", I would have done it. But I was too shy. So I prayed each night in my bed for forgiveness and please, please Jesus, don't leave me behind.

One morning during the Fall Revival; I awaoke at down to a completely empty house. My parents and my 4 siblings weren't there. Even the dog was nowhere to be seen. The electricity wouldn't work. I immediately jumped to conclusions. Oh My God. Jesus came back, and took everybody else and left me behind. I'm going to Hell.

It sounds funny now, but I assure you, it wasn't funny then. Imagine a 12 year old boy, down on his knees in the frost covered backyard, in his underwear, tears streaming down his face, pleading with Jesus to spare him. It was an awful few minutes.

Then I heard a familiar sound, Putt, Putt, Putt. Our farm tractor. Then our dog burst over the hill behind the house followed by the tractor pulling a trailer load of cured tobacco, my family riding along. They had gone to get cured tobacco out of the barn and transfer it to the pack house, and decided since I had the sniffles to leave me in bed. And, the power had gone out, which happend once or twice a month, for no known reason. Instead of the Devil coming to devour me, it was just my parents coming to fuss at me for being outside in my underwear and my siblings to laugh at me for being afraid.

Story 2: I was in Canton Ohio this week. and got to go by the Pro Footbal Hall of fame late one afternoon, I barely had 45 minutes before closing time, but I was determined to get it in. It was a coll, overcast rainy Wednesday afternoon, there was almost no one there. I went from room to room alone, I had gotten used to my solitude when I rounded a corner into a room and there stood a familier face, At first I thought it was a manikin, but it had on a Blue Balzer and slacks, not a unifrom. Then it, he, moved, and I realized it really was Franco Harris, one of my heroes from years ago. (Pittsburg Steelers, running back, the Immaculate Reception, ask a football fan)
I couldn't believe it, walked away (still shy), then came up and said, "You're Franco Harris".
He said, "Yes, I know." I shook his hand and walked away.

Judgement will come like a thief in the night, unexpectedly, when you least expect it. When you're busy doing something else, the moment or moments of truth will sneak up on you.
That's why there are no small moments, no insignificant actions. Every moment and every action calls for behavior that is consistent with who we are as children of God.

Story 3: John A Broadus was the first Professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, back in 1850. He was a Classics and New Testament Scholar who had taught at the University of Va. and was well respected in all academic circles. When the Civil War erupted, the school closed and Broadus served as a military Chaplain. After the War, in the fall of 1865, the school reopened with one student, and he was blind. But Broadus soldiered on, lecturing on a regular schedule to this one student, on Theology and Bible and Preaching. He carefully prepared his lectures for his one student, and in 1870 those lectures became a book called A TREATISE ON THE PREPARATTION AND DELIVERY OF SERMONS.

It is still in print, it was THE standard preaching textbook in American seminaries well into the 1960's. And all because one man did not bury his talents, but decided to use what he had to the best of his ability and to leave the ultimate outcome up to God. Broadus did not prepare his lectures expecting to write a book. He prepared his lectures with an eye to teaching his one blind student to preach.

That's it for this week. Peace.


Wednesday, November 02, 2005

ALL SAINTS SUNDAY: Readings for Nov. 6, 2005

FIRST READING: Revelation 7:9-17.
I'm not much on the"Book of Revelations" as they call it here in Western NC. I'm with Luther on this one, who said that a Revelation ought to reveal something, and he had never been able to make head nor tails out of it. (Well, he said something in German that meant what I just said,
the peasant idioms being different).

But on All Saints Sunday, this text is a good place to begin in terms of the "faithful departed" part of the day's theme. I have to confess that the "robed in white, chanting around the throne of God image" leaves me cold. I can't sing and I get white stuff dirty immediately. But, then I remember it's poetic [thanks Bruggermann(?) ] and I relax and realize the message is intended as one of "hold on" in the midst of persecution and those suffering for God's Kingdom will triumph in the end.

Unfortunately, we have dropped the FAITHFUL part of "faithful departed" and replaced it with the undertakers oily "dear departed". That is to say, we have totally eliminiated any understanding that the suffering implied is "martyr" related, received as a result of being a "witness" in the world to the Gospel.

We have applied the text's language about those who have sufffered for the faith to those who have suffered at all. We have begun to define life as suffering, so all get rewarded. I don't think that's what was meant by this passage, and we, as preachers, need to reclaim the issue of suffering "for the faith", of being persecuted because one is a Christian, because one takes a stand and acts on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, the neglected, "the least of these".

To do anything else cheapens God's Grace to the point that it is, well, pointless.

"Beloved, we are God's Children now; ..." What does it mean to be a child of God?
When I was a kid, I couldn't say my L's and W's, I got them backwards. My mother still laughs at my early attempts to say Pillow and Pickle.

There was a man at church who liked to ask me who I was, because he knew I would sputter and say "Im Woleww Chiwton's boy! (Lowell Chilton's boy) He did it every Sunday, and laughed every Sunday. The main thing I remember about that is I knew who I was, and who I was was related directly to family and parentage.

Most people in the modern American world do not thinkof their identity as being a "Child of God". This is an image which has been culturally lost. We are independent, individual, adult, mature, makers of our own destiny, creators of our own future, we are "self-made," we are children of no one. If we have any thought of our relation to God, it is as Co-creators, or as
partners, God is my CO-pilot, which of course puts us in the driver's seat and God along for the ride.

Recovery of the image of ourselves as "children of God" is important to our spiritual health. It is a key to a restoration of wonder and awe and mystery as a vital part of the way we look at the world. We have told ourselves that we are in charge of our fate; Katrina and Rita and Wilma and Tsunamis and Earthquakes have reminded us just how far from the truth that is.

To have a healthy relationship with the world and with the Holy, we must return to the place of wide-eyed observors and learners, ready to learn and relate, not subdue and conquer.

GOSPEL READING: Matthew 5:1-12 (the Beatitudes)
I think the low point for the Beatitudes came when Robert Schuller reduced tham to Pop Psychology with his early 80's book on the "BE HAPPY ATTITUDES". I bet his New Testament Professor at the Reformed Church seminary was rolling over in his grave at that one!

They have been accused of being a sop to the underclass, along the lines of Marx's Religion As the OPIATE of the People, of the "pie in the sky, by and by" variety. They have been read as part of an eschatological ethic, imposssible for real people in the real world to achieve.

The really interesting thing is not that Jesus talks about the coming rewards of the Kingdom of Heaven. This was pretty standard stuff in those days of Messianic Hope.

The surprising thing is to whom Jesus says these rewards will come: the blessed, the sainted are not the Good, the Devout, those obviously favored by God because of their wealth and their position. No, Jesus says that God favors the poor, the sad, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted and suffer for doing the right thing and for caring for those in need.

I was thinking about a line from Flannery O'Connors novel "Wise Blood". There, her anti-hero,
the very strange Hazel Motes, replies to a question of his salvation, "Any man with a good car don't need redemption." And most of us agree with him. Anyone with a good job, a good marriage, good health, and good insurance don't need redemption. Which is why the church has stopped preaching the Gospel and started preaching self-help, relationship guidelines and politics from left to right. We're going to get a "good car" and to heck with redemption.

at least that's what I think.