Friday, December 11, 2009

Dec. 13, 2009

(A sermon preached at the dedication of Hope Lutheran Church, Ellijay, GA
This sermon is NOT on the lectionary texts, but on the text the congregation chose for the dedication of their new building. I think the Advent connection is the notion that Godd is always doing a New Thing, building, commencing newness.)

Matthew 7: 24-29
Built on a Rock

In the mail a couple of weeks ago I got an invitation to Mid-year Commencement ceremonies at Mars Hill College in Asheville, NC.

My nephew's girlfriend will graduate there on Friday night.

Then she will marry my nephew on Saturday.
That's a whole lot of "commencing" for one weekend.

Commencement is, of course, a strange word for what feels to most people like an ending.

After all to “commence” is to start, to begin, to get going; not to finish.

So why is it that people “finish” college by “commencing?”

Could it be that to finish one thing is to begin another?
To finish one’s education is to begin one’s career.
To finish one’s courtship is to begin one’s marriage.
To finish a meal is to begin . . . the dishes.

(The trouble with preaching is that sometimes metaphors break down all over the place; but you get the idea.)

We have gathered here this afternoon to celebrate the finishing of one thing and the beginning of another.

You have finished the building. Let everyone say YAAA!

You don’t have to move AGAIN! Let everyone say WAHOO!

Yes you’ve finished the building and stopped moving around town, but are you through, finished, with building the church?

Have you completed construction, or has it just begun?

Is this church ready to sit back and relax and enjoy its retirement?

Or is it time to commence another kind of building?

The truth is; building the church is never ending work.

This is because the church is more organic and alive than it is static and still.

What do I mean by that?

Although the faith we proclaim,
the God we serve,
the Jesus we love; never changes;

the people who come in and out of this place
and who serve this place
and who will be served by this place do change.

The people personally change,
and the people who make up the church,
the demographic of the church changes,
people come, people go,
people move in and then sometimes move on.

The church is always in the process of re-inventing itself, of creating disciples out of people who have been attracted by the teachings of Jesus.

The Church is always in the process of developing new things, new ideas, new directions.

Now, sometimes these new things don't go over very well, do they?

Have you ever heard the jokes about how many Lutherans it takes to change a light bulb?

FIRST JOKE: How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?

SECOND JOKE: How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? One hundred. One to change the bulb, Ninety-nine to talk about how good and faithful the old bulb was and how much they're going to miss it.
You get the idea. New is necessary; it's just not always real popular.

But doing something new is a part of what it means to build the church.

We have to continually be growing, changing, adapting in order to build the church.

We are never finished, we are always commencing.

Our Gospel lesson reminds us that just building anywhere will not do.

The church must be built on a solid rock, not on shifting sand.

Often times it seems to many of us that a lot of the changes the church has gone through have been built on the shifting sands of what is popular, or hip, or the latest new thing.

As Jesus points out, things built on such a volatile and unstable foundation will soon fall.

On the other hand, a church built on the solid rock of Christ and the Scriptures and two thousand years of Christian Tradition will stand and survive in the midst of the world's continually evolving tastes, whims and fanaticisms.

We have this day marked out and blessed those things that God has provided to assist us in building the church and keeping it true.

The Baptismal Font, where we are washed and cleansed and set on our feet and to which we return for forgiveness and renewal on a regular basis.

Martin Luther said that at times of distress and peril, of despair and disappointment,
of challenge and opportunity, we must pat ourselves on the forehead and remind ourselves that
"We have been baptized,"

that we have been forgiven, we have been filled with the Holy Spirit, we have been sent out into the world to share the love of God in Christ. Our Baptism is the cornerstone of our faith and our church

The Pulpit, where God’s word is read and proclaimed to us.
This is where Christ is made present in our hearing and in our hearts and lives, where the preacher is given both the freedom and the responsibility to Preach Christ and Him Crucified.

The pulpit also symbolizes for us our educational ministries, our Sunday School and catechism classes and our adult Bible studies.

It reminds us also of the Proclamation of the Word in song by congregation and choir, actions that build up our faith and build up our community.

The Altar, the Table, where Christ is made present in the Bread and the Wine, where his life is poured out for and into our lives, where we receive nourishment for the journey.

How can anyone stay away from this table if you know what is offered to you here?

Christ himself: God from God, light from light, true God from true God, broken and shed FOR YOU, freely given FOR YOU, here for the taking FOR YOU.

What we have done here today is set apart this place and these furnishings as tools of God, as Means of Grace, by which God will build his church on the Rock of faith in Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen and amen.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Advent II, Dec. 6

One of the interesting things about this job is that I preach in a different place almost every week. Some people in a similar posotion use "stock" sermons. I chose to write a new one every week, but I can't let a good story go too soon. Those of you who read here frequently will recognize the Morgan Wooten story from a couple of weeks ago. Part of the fun of writing sermons is finding ways to invite the congregation into the conversation with the text. I think this story has proven to be a good invite.

(A sermon preached at St. Stephen's Lutheran Church, Decatur, GA)

Text: Malachi 3: 1-4, Luke 3:1-6

Morgan Wooten was a basketball coach. He coached at DeMatha High School in the DC area. His teams won 1274 games while losing only 192 times. He was considered by everyone who knew him to be one of the great ones. Well, everyone except his grandson.

Wooten is one of only three High School coaches in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
At his induction, he told a story about his grandson's first day of school.

The teacher asked Nick: what's your favorite sport?

He replied: Baseball.

The teacher knew who Nick's grandfather was. She was surprised. She said: Not basketball?

Nick said: Nope. I don't know anybody who knows anything about basketball.

The teacher was even more surprised: but Nick, a lot of people think your Grandfather Wooten knows a lot about basketball.


it comes to seeing God's presence in the world, many of us are like Nick and his Grandfather Wooten.

Though we may still believe in God, we find it difficult to take God into consideration in our daily decision making.

We go along, bowing in the general direction of the altar, as it were; saying the right things with our lips, making the correct gestures at the appropriate times;

but all the while acting in our real lives as if God did not exist, living our lives no differently from our unbelieving neighbors.

Advent is a time to be reminded that God does exist,
that God is very much involved in the affairs of the world,
that God does care what we do and how we do it,
that God is coming to clean us up and put us back on the right track.

In our First Lesson, Malachi says;

Who can endure the day of his coming?
And who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner's fire,
And like fuller's soap.

Well, I don't know much about refiner's fire, but I do know about a version of Fuller's soap. I grew up on a farm in NC, and we raised tobacco, and tobacco is indeed a very dirty crop.

When it is harvested green from the fields, your hands and clothes are covered with what we called "tobacco gum." It is sticky and black and resiny, like thick molasses or tar on your hands and clothes.

When we came to the house at the end of the day, we washed up at a table in the backyard, with pans full of hot soapy water and a bar of gritty, pungent soap.

Its name was LAVA. It felt like it had grains of sand it in as we scrubbed our hands and arms to remove the thick accumulation of filth we had acquired. It was like washing with liquid sandpaper.

As one commentator said of Fuller's soap, "It was known for its power, not its subtlety; it was not a gentle soap." (Stephen Break Reid p. 511, The Lectionary Commentary, Eerdman's, 2001)

The text from Malachi reminds us that we must get ourselves cleaned up and ready
for the Day of the Lord.

It is a reminder that while we are festive and happy that Christmas is coming, Christ came into the world for a serious reason and with a serious agenda.

The world was dirty and needed cleaning up.
People had sinned and needed forgiveness.
The world was broken and needed fixing.

What was true then is true now.
We are dirty and need cleaning,
we have sinned and need forgiveness,
we are broken and need fixing.

It is not an easy problem, and there is no easy button.

It is a hard and difficult problem which requires a hard and difficult solution.

Our Gospel lesson for today centers on John the Baptist’s call to repentance.

Repentance begins in the recognition of personal involvement in and responsibility for the Evil that surrounds us.

John’s call to repentance is a call for us to look at ourselves and to see in ourselves and our attitudes and our actions the things that lead to evil in the world.

John’s call to repentance is a call to look at our way of being in the world and in relationship to one another and to repent of those things which cause harm to ourselves and others.

John’s call is a call to confession and repentance.All too often, we make it as far as confession, and then stop.

Confession is the admission that there are indeed things we do in life that are wrong. We confess that, and go no further.

One day in Nashville I went to the YMCA to pick up my son.
As I approached the entrance, a very angry mother barged out the door
followed by a girl about 4 and a boy about 7.

The boy was saying, I told you I was sorry.
And the mother turned and said, hissing between her teeth,
Sorry doesn’t get it anymore.
I want you to stop doing it!

True repentance combines confession, I’m sorry, with what the old prayer books referred to as amendment of life.

The Greek word translated here repentance is not really a religious or theological word. It is metanoia, which is an ordinary, everyday word in Greek.

It simply means to turn around and go the other way;
to stop going one direction and to start going in the opposite direction.

This is more a matter of the mind and heart and will than it is of our outward actions. Metanoia refers to changing one's mind, which in turn changes one's actions.

Here's a simple example: suppose you went out the parking lot here onto Covington Highway. To go to Lithonia and Conyers and Covington, you would turn Left.

Now what if when you went out of the parking lot you turned Right and went toward Atlanta.

I'm guessing that about the time you cross I-285 you would recognize your mistake and realize you were going the wrong way.

Now wouldn't it be silly if you said. "Oh my, I'm going the wrong way. Covington is directly the other way. Oh well, there's nothing I can do about it, I'm only human, I'm so sorry I'm going the wrong way. "

It would be ridiculous for you to cry and weep and confess; while all the while still going the wrong way.

Metanoia; repentance is the two-part action of realizing you are going the wrong way, and acting to turn around and go the right way. In this case, turning the car around and going the other way, East toward Covington.

The Gospel, the Good News, is rooted in this simple act of repentance, because we can only stop going the wrong way if we have shown to us the right way.

The Gospel comes to turn us around,
to show us the way,
to warn us off the danger in the path we are taking,
and to provide for us a route to safety.

One of my very earliest memories is of a bright summer day on the farm.
I was playing in the backyard, under the apple trees.
My Daddy was mowing hay in a field next to the house.
Mama called to me from the back-porch.
She sent me into the field with a quart jar full of ice and water for Daddy.

As I started out across the field, Daddy stopped the tractor and got off and started yelling at me.


Now, even as a 4 year old, I knew that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, so Daddy’s instructions made no sense to me.

But I stopped and thought about it a minute. Though I could see no reason to stop and go back and go around, it was my Daddy telling me this, so I backed up and followed his instructions.

When I got to the tractor, I discovered that he had run over a Yellow Jacket’s nest in the ground and had stirred them up. The angry swarm lay directly in the path I was following.

So it is with us.

We may not be able to see the destruction that lies upon the path we have chosen,
but we have a loving God; a caring Savior; who is calling us to turn from the path of self-deception.

The Gospel is that Jesus came into the world to open for us the way to God;
to unblock the path and to call us to follow Jesus on the way.

For us to turn from the way we have been going, we have to see that we are being called to turn from danger to security, from evil to good, from wrong to right,
from our way to God’s way.

The way is being prepared, the opportunity is here. John’s call is ringing in our ears. REPENT, REPENT! Turn Back! Go the Other Way!

John’s call to REPENT is a call to look to our lives and change direction, so that when Christ comes in the flesh, we will be ready to receive our salvation.

Amen and Amen

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Nov. 15, 2009; Pentecost 24, Lectionary 33

November 15, 2009

A sermon preached at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Knoxville, TN

Texts: Daniel 12:1-3; Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25; Psalm 16; Mark 13:1-8

Morgan Wooten was a basketball coach. He coached at DeMatha High School in the DC area. His teams won 1274 games while losing only 192 times. He was considered by everyone who knew him to be one of the great ones. Well, everyone except his grandson.

Wooten is one of only three High School coaches in the Basketball Hall of Fame. At his induction, he told a story about his grandson's first day of school.

The teacher asked Nick: what's your favorite sport?

He replied: Baseball.

The teacher knew who Nick's grandfather was. She was surprised. She said: Not basketball?

Nick said: Nope. I don't know anybody who knows anything about basketball.

The teacher was even more surprised: but Nick, a lot of people think your Grandfather Wooten knows a lot about basketball.


SOMETIMES WE ARE LIKE Nick. Because we see the game of life going on and have a hard time seeing the hand of God anywhere in it, we think:

God knows nothing about it,

or, God cares nothing about it,

or, God can't do anything about it, because, after all,

We never see God get in the game.

The Bible readings today talk about the art of having faith in a world gone mad,
of seeing God's hand in the wild whirlwind of life around us.

Each is an example of APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE. Though many use these types of writings to try to make predictions about the future and to frighten people in the present, that is not what these Bible readings are about.

They are intended to bring us reassurance of God's love when we go through hard times and God seems to be very far away.

Daniel was written at a time when the Hebrew people and the Jewish faith were in a tough spot.

They were in exile, they were oppressed, they were persecuted.

Daniel was written to give hope to a people who had lost all hope; to give faith to those who were losing touch with God.

Chapter 13 of Mark's Gospel was written about thirty years after the death of Jesus, to the early Christians, a community of faith that was also in a tough spot,

They were a people who were fearful and hesitant about the future. These words were written to give them hope and faith in the God of the future.

Hebrews was written to the Jewish Christian Community in Rome. They were struggling with the Romans on the one hand and their Jewish brothers and sisters on the other. They needed a word of hope in a time of distress.

Each of these communities was like Morgan Wooten's grandson. They saw the activity in front of them, but they couldn't see the hand of the one running the show; and so they were afraid, they were anxious, they were losing hope.

I love old 50s' television, and everyone once in a long while, on TVLand or something like that, you can get lucky and see an old skit with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks.

It's called the 2000 year old man. Reiner plays a TV reporter and Brooks plays, well, a 2000 year old man.

Newsman: Well did you worship God in your village?

Old Man: No, at first we worshipped this guy in our village named Phil.

Newsman: You worshipped a guy named Phil? Why?

Old Man: well, he was bigger than us, and faster than us, and he was mean, and he could hurt you; break your arm or leg right in two; so we worshipped Phil.

Newsman: I see. Did you have any prayers in this religion?

Old Man: Yeah. Want to hear one? PLEASE PHIL NO! PLEASE PHIL NO!

Newsman: Okay. When did you stop worshipping Phil?

Old Man: Well One day we were having a religious festival.
Phil was chasing us and we were praying. (PLEASE PHIL NO! PLEASE PHIL NO!)
and suddenly a thunderstorm came up and a bolt of lightning struck and killed Phil.
We all gathered around and stared at Phil awhile and then we realized:

That is the ultimate message of Apocalyptic literature; There's something bigger than Phil, there's something bigger than the bad stuff that happens in our lives.

And that something bigger is God.

That something bigger is Grace.

That something bigger is Love.

That something bigger is Faith in God's tomorrow overcoming our yesterdays and todays.

That something bigger is the faith that God is indeed very much in the game.
God is involved in all our pain and sorrow, our suffering and disappointment.

God is bigger, much bigger than all those things that frighten and haunt us.

Almost every church sings the Hymn Now Thank We All Our God around Thanksgiving. You know it, it goes like this:

Now thank we all our God, with hearts and souls and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices.
Who, from our mothers' arms, has blest us on our way,
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

As you sing that this year, reflect upon this: Pastor Martin Rinkhart wrote that hymn in the early 1600's, in the midst of the Thirty Years War. 6000 - 8000 people in his village and territory died in an epidemic, including the other two clergymen, for weeks at a time he buried as many as fifty people a day, including his own wife and children.

Either Rinkhart was heartless and a bit crazy, or he was in touch with a deep, deep spiritual truth about a God whose promises are ever sure and whose love never fails.

If Rinkhardt was right, if our Bible readings are telling us the truth that in the midst of this world's trouble and sorrow, pain and disappointment; we can hold fast to the assurance of God's concern and involvement in our lives; what are we to do, how are we called to live our lives?

There's a fascinating line in our Hebrews lesson, verse 24: "And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds,"

Usually, I would say almost always, the word provoke is used in a negative sense; as in "Honest Officer, I didn't aim to hit him, but he, he PROVOKED me!" but here it is used positively, as encouragment, as stirring up, as prodding and pushing and being active in love.

We are called into a world full of scared, lonely, hurting people, and we are called to provoke one another into acts of love, into works of mercy, into commitments to compassion, into doing the right thing for all the right reasons.

Jesus showed us the way to live in the light. Jesus' entire life, death and resurrection were about a divine provocation to love.

The Cross is the place it all comes together.
There Christ suffered so that we might be healed,
There Christ wept, so that we might have joy in the morning,
There Christ was punished, so that we would be forgiven,
There Christ was lost and forsaken, so that we could be found by God,
There Christ died, that we might live.

And there we are called to go out; to go out into the world
with the message of God's love and hope.

Amen and amen.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Lectionary 32/ Pentecost 23

A sermon preached at Martin Luther Evangelical Lutheran church, Mobile alabama on the Occasion of their 87th Anniversary.

November 8, 2009

Texts: I Kings 17:8-16, Mark 12:38-44

Today, we have read Bible lessons about two widows, both of whom were poor, and both of whom were generous with what they had.

The Gospel lesson, the story we know as the widow’s mite, was a little tough on Pastors and other official church folk.

-Beware of scribes, who like to walk around in long robes Well, I wear them during service, but I don’t walk around in them, much.

-and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, Okay, I do like it when people in grocery stores and restaurants call me Father or Reverend or Padre and treat me a little extra nice.

And to have the best seats in the synagogue - well, I don’t know if it’s the best, but it is bigger and it is different.

And places of honor at banquets
- What can I say, I obviously like to eat!

They devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers, Okay, I’m clean on these two, I’ve never tricked a widow out of her house, and I’m famous for short prayers, not long ones, so perhaps I’ve escaped the “greater condemnation” by a narrow margin.

Whenever we hear a bible story, one of the most important things we can ask ourselves is, "With whom do I identify, who in this story feels like me?"

Of course, none of us would like to think we’re like the scribes, making a big, loud public display of our religion; in particular, none of us wants to look like a hypocrite.

And we all want to believe that we’re like the widow, doing all we can with what little we have.

Most of us, most of the time, hear the Widow’s Mite story and think it means something like this:

"See, it’s not HOW MUCH you give that matters, it’s the spirit with which you give that counts. A little bit is just as important as a lot."

That is true, as far as it goes.

But most of us miss an important point here, Jesus did not say that the widow gave all she could afford; Jesus said she gave all she had.

Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. Far all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

Truth be told, most of us, myself included, most of the time, give out of our abundance.

We give what we think we can afford to give without seriously affecting our standard of living.

What Jesus points to in the widow is another thing entirely; her total commitment of everything she has, all her resources, “all she had to live on” to the Kingdom of God.

At root, this story is not so much about giving and generosity as it is about TRUST IN GOD.

That is why the Hebrew story of Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath is read with the story of the Widow’s Mite in the appointed readings for today.

These two stories are not only about widows, they are about putting your complete trust in God.

The Widow of Zarephath also gave all she had. She shared with the Prophet of the LORD the last of her food in a time of famine.

Yet, when she did, she discovered she had enough, enough at least to keep going, day by day; the jar of meal and the jug of oil having in them each day enough for that day’s needs.

This is the way God operates. This is the way God provides for God’s people.
Remember the manna from Heaven, the bread upon the ground provided to the Israelites
as they went from Egypt to the Promised Land?

If they took more than they needed for the day, the extra would rot before the next morning. It was a lesson in trusting God to provide each day’s needs.

What Jesus notices and comments upon with the Widow is not the size of her gift, but the fact that she gave her all, trusting that God would provide for the next day.

This is the Biblical Principle of God’s economy; this is the way God always works.

God’s promise is not: If you return to me a tithe, I will make you rich.

God’s promise is: If you commit to me your all, I will provide for your needs.

The history of Martin Luther Evangelical Lutheran Church teaches us that this is true.

When Mrs. Mayme Dixon and her aunt, Mrs. Theresa Pratt, began a Sunday School in the Laundry Workers Hall on Adam Street, teaching on Sunday afternoons in 1922, the odds were stacked against them.

They were women, they were black, they were Lutheran in the south. They had nothing going for them; except the fact that God had called them to the work and promised to provide for them as they pursued it.

Over the years, the Sunday School became a Church and a Church School and a ministry served by many pastors. We especially remember the long and fruitful ministries of Pastors Routte and Carstensen and Branch and Bradley-Love and all the faithful laypeople who served and worshipped and lead this church with them.

And at no time did this church have anything other than the call of God to serve and the promise of God to provide.

And the church has served and God has provided.

The Bible stories about the widow's and their generosity, our own remembrance of Martin Luther Church's history of giving while trusting God are not so much about finances as they are about the relationship of trust we are called upon to have with God.

And, we must admit, this is hard for us, we like to hedge our bets, hold a little something back, play it safe.

A couple of years ago, a college student went into a camera store to have a picture enlarged.

It was a framed 8x10 of the young man and his girlfriend. When the clerk took the picture out of the frame, he read the writing on the back:

My dearest Tommy, I love you with all my heart. I love you more and more each day. I will love you forever and ever. I am yours for all eternity. With all my love, Diane

PS - If we ever break up, I want this picture back!

Today God call us toward making a complete and total commitment of ourselves to Christ and the Kingdom of God.

We are called upon to make all that we are and all that we have available to the work of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ into all the World.

And the Gospel, the Good News, for us today is that we can make that leap, that commitment, with full confidence in God’s promise to provide our every need, now and forever more.

Amen and amen

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Pentecost 19/ Lectionary 28

Oct. 11, 2009
Christ Lutheran Church, Fairfield Glade, TN.
Text: Mark 10: 17-31

When I was a graduate student at Duke University, I had the opportunity to be pastor of three little country Methodist churches.

It was a relatively easy gig. I lived in the parsonage and preached on Sundays and handled weddings and funerals and emergencies. I spent most of my time thirty-five miles away in the Duke Divinity School library.

There was one thing I sometimes had to do that I wasn't crazy about. All the Baptist churches in the county had fall and spring revival meetings.

To help work up a crowd they invited the choirs of the neighborhood to come one night and do the "special singing." When my choir went somewhere to sing I felt obliged to go along to lend them support.

One night I slipped into the back row of a small country church a few minutes late. After my choir had sung, I tried to catch up on my Church History assigned reading. I had the history textbook hidden in a big leather zip-up bible case and I hoped everyone would think I was deep into the Word.

The preacher was a traveling evangelist and he put on quite an exhibition; shouting and hollering and stomping his feet and breaking into song and denouncing sins, some of which I had never heard of.

After a while I gave up reading and watched the show; both his theatrics and the crowd's reactions. One little boy in particular caught my eye.

While his grandmother tried to pay attention,
he kicked the pew in front of him, he laid down,
he slid off the pew into the floor,
he drew in the back of the hymnal with that stubby little pencil you can usually find in a pew rack,
he loudly chewed gum and he sucked on a mint,
he played with Grandma's car-keys,
and he asked if it was time to go,
oh, about every two minutes.

Finally, as the Preacher launched into a fire-breathing altar call,
with the congregation standing, every head bowed, every eye closed,

I saw him stand on tip-toe and the pew and whisper loudly into Grandma's ear, ARE YOU SURE THIS IS THE ONLY WAY TO GEET TO HEAVEN?

This is the question that, in one way or another, all of us get around to asking eventually.

The man in our Gospel lesson asked, "What must I do to inherit Eternal Life?"

When Jesus tells the disciples that rich people are going to have a hard time getting in, they ask, "Well, who can be saved then?'

"What must I do to be saved?" says one.
"How can I get right with God?" says another.

There are secular, non-religious versions of the question: "What is the meaning of life?" "How can I be fulfilled?" "What does success look like for me?" to me, it's all a part of the same question.

In our Gospel lesson, a man came up and knelt in front of Jesus. We have traditionally referred to him as the "Rich Young Ruler." This is a composite name from three Gospel writers. Matthew calls him "young," Luke calls him a "ruler," and all three say he's "rich."

The man came asking a question to which he thought he already knew the answer. He's like the wicked witch in Snow White talking to the mirror. "Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest of them all."

The rich Young ruler believes he is, and comes to Jesus for affirmation, not information.

He wants Jesus to give him a benediction, a good word. He wants the JESUS OF NAZERETH, PROPHET AND TEACHER, seal of approval on his life. And much to his surprise he doesn't get it; not in the way he had expected.

You see, he had rested his claim on the Kingdom of God on the Twin Pillars of righteousness and riches.

Obey the Ten Commandments and enjoy worldly success.
And worldly success is an outward and visible sign of God's inward and visible blessing.

So the young man believed. And honestly, so did everyone else in that time and place.

That very debate was part of what the book of Job was about.

Do we love God because we're blessed with material things; or are we blessed with material things because we love God?

If we're not blessed, does that mean we're bad?

And if we're clearly good, and we have nothing, does that mean God's not fair?

The people in Jesus' world, including his disciples, believed that morality and material blessing went hand in hand. If you were good, God would bless you with riches and comforts in this world.

So, when Jesus said to the young man, "You lack one thing, go and sell all and give it to the poor. . ."

it wasn't just the giving up of his money and stuff that bumfuzzled him; the rich young ruler's whole world view, his entire way of looking at how the world works, has been turned upside down and inside out.

Remember the little boy at the revival meeting.

After church I was standing in the parking lot talking to my choir members when she came marching him out the door; hat squarely on her head, suitcase-size pocketbook on her arm, holding him by the neck with one hand and swatting at this behind with the other.

He danced ahead of her with that pelvis-forward, swat-avoiding, Michael Jackson moon walk we've all seen. He yelled back at her, "What you hittin' me for? I ain't done nothing."

The rich young ruler hasn't done anything either, and that's just the point. Though he has lived a fastidiously moral life, ("All these I have kept from my youth"), he had never learned that there is more to the moral life, to life in the Kingdom of God, than being good and safe and not wrong.

He had never learned to go the extra mile, to take a risk, to boldly go where he has never gone before.

Jesus looked upon him with love and spoke to him out of that love when he said to him, "You lack one thing."

Because Jesus then tells him to get rid of his wealth and give it to the poor, we can become confused about what Jesus sees as missing in his life.

The man doesn't lack generosity,
he doesn't lack compassion for others,
he doesn't lack doesn't lack morality;
he doesn't lack an awareness of call of God on the Jews to hospitality to the stranger.

This man lacks faith.

He lacks a willingness to trust God both now and into the future.

He lacks a confident and joyous reliance upon the love and generosity of God.

He is relying upon his goodness and his goods to get him through this life and into the next, and Jesus says, "Friend, that's just not good enough."

Why is it hard for a rich person to get into heaven, harder than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle?

Because when you're rich, it's really hard to realize how much you need God and other people.

Being rich is not evil; it is just exceptionally dangerous to your spiritual health.
The question for us today is this: what are we depending on in our relationship with God?

Are we depending on our rightness, our ability to discern and know the right answer to spiritual and religious questions?

Are we depending on our righteousness, on our goodness, on our obedience to the
Ten Commandments?

What is it that keeps us trusting ourselves and not fully trusting God?

What is the one thing that we lack, the one thing that keeps us from totally and completely committing ourselves to God's will and God's way.

What keeps us from doing wild and wonderful right things in the name of the Living Christ?

The Good News is that Jesus has come to transform the impossible into the possible.

Jesus has come to release us from our bondage of serving our selves and our things.

Jesus has come to take us by the scruff of the neck and to drag us kicking and screaming through the eye of that needle, into the center of God's love.

Amen and amen.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Lectionary 27, Pentecost 18

Oct. 4, 2009
Sermon preached at the re-dedication of the building at Cross of Life Lutheran Church, Roswell, Ga.

Text: Hebrews 1:1-4, 5:5-12
Title: But, We Do See Jesus

"As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus . . ."

Almost every Saturday afternoon, I listen to the opera on the Public Radio station.

Now Fred, don't look so surprised. I like opera. Not as much as I like Lynard Skynard or ZZ Topp, but I like Opera.

Well, okay, I don't. Not really, but I like the IDEA of liking opera.

Deep down inside, I feel like I OUGHT to like opera, that a well educated person SHOULD like opera, and so. . .

On Saturday afternoon's I listen to opera.

This is kind of like the theory my wife used in trying to feed our two teen-aged sons liver and broccoli.

She thought if she put it in front of them often enough eventually they would walk in the house one day and say, "Gee Mom, what's for supper? I could sure go for some liver and broccoli right about now."

Not gonna happen. No Way. No how. But, you know; hope springs eternal in the human breast and all that.

Anyway, I listen to opera in the vague hope that someday, somehow, I'll start to like it and can then count myself as a genuinely educated and cultured person.

Every once in a great while I find myself kind of liking a piece, nodding my head and humming along and I think,

Gee, I'm starting to like this opera stuff after all.

But then I realize that the opera pieces I like are the ones they used as soundtracks for the Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd cartoons I watched as a child and I'm back to square one. It's not music appreciation; it's just nostalgia for my childhood.

I'm still listening, and I'm still hoping, but I'm 55. I don't think this plan is working.

As it is, we do not see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus . . .

Many people in our world today are seeking Spiritual Enlightenment. In recent public opinion polls, more people are willing to claim being "spiritual," than are willing to say that they are "religious."

People go looking for "spirituality," the way I have gone looking for "culture and sophistication," and with about the same level of success.

People explore the latest prayer techniques and different churches and praise bands and labyrinth walks and Alpha bible Studies and the Wild Women of the Bible Weekends and Seeking Your Inner Child Men's Drum Circle Sweat Lodge and I don't know what all.

And whatever it is they think they're looking for, if it isn't where they are, well, it must it over the hill or around the corner or in the next place they look or the next.

As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus . . .

The author of the book of Hebrews is, in this text, dealing with the fact that while the biblical witness is that God is in charge of the world; when we look around us, it is difficult to see the evidence that God, or God's angels (them), are actually in charge of much of anything.

As one of my unbelieving college professors put it, "If God is really in charge, he, she or it is doing a lousy job."

War, drugs, disease, natural disaster, economic collapse, starvation; need I go on? Does this look like "everything in subjection. . ." to God?

And let's be honest with one another today. The church, the place those of us gathered here have traditionally looked for hope and meaning is in a confusing place right now.

Not just our ELCA with its debates over sexuality and biblical interpretation and theological thinking; but other denominational families as well.

It is a time of change and uncertainty and discomfort.

It is a time when people are searching for what a prayer in the Lutheran Funeral Service calls a "Sure and certain hope."

That little word "yet," is vital to understanding not only this text, but also the promise of the Gospel to us at times like these.

As it is,we do no yet see . .

As much as we yearn for and look for and yes, do battle for, certainty and security, the Bible constantly reminds us of what Luther referred to as the "Hidden-ness of God."

It is sometimes referred to as the "already-but-not-yet" Kingdom of God.

As we look around the world for God, God is often difficult to see, difficult to pin down.

And sometimes, just when we think we have the holy in our hands, it slips away as we realize we were mistaken; as I was when I thought I liked opera but it turned out to be cartoons I liked.

The author of Hebrews reminds us that we are to look to Jesus to see what God is doing in the world.

We are to look particularly at the fact that Jesus gave up his place at the right hand of God to become human like us. Who for a little while became lower than the angels, the text says.

And that as a result of this coming into humanity with us, Jesus suffered and died and "tasted death for everyone."

NO, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus.

We are here today re-dedicating a church facility. My younger brother is an architect. He has taught me to always remember the mantra, "form follows function."

That is to say, How you shape a building should be dependent on what you want to do in that building.

That which is true of buildings is true of church communities. How we shape ourselves depends on what we believe our purpose in the world to be.

It is my simple contention today that our purpose as a community is to remind the world to look to Christ and the Cross in the midst of the "not-yet" of our lives, and it is the purpose of this building to help us do that.

A few years ago, the Barna Research Group did a poll asking this simple question: What are the most important words you've ever heard? That's it. What are the three most important words you've ever heard?

Family feud style, #1 answer didn't surprise anyone: I love you.

#2 didn't surprise anyone either: I forgive you.

But # 3 dropped a few jaws; Dinner's ready, come eat.

That is the Gospel we proclaim, that is the function of this building and its form tells the tale.

The cross that looms over everything reminds us all of how much God loves us, that "by the grace of God Jesus tasted death for everyone."

The font in the middle of the aisle reminds us of God's forgiveness and our forgiveness of others each time we enter this room, it calls us back to the waters of our baptism and propels us into the world with a hope grounded in the knowledge that we have been freed from the bondage to our faults and failures, that we have been loosed from our to go confidently into the future.

And here, front and center is the altar. Here we, and the whole world, are invited to come forward to receive the sacrament of the table. My wife is an Episcopalian. When I get to go to church with her I love it when I'm kneeling at the altar and the pastor gives me the bread and says,

This is the body of Christ, the bread of heaven. Take it in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your heart with thanksgiving.

At the altar we shout out to the world, Dinner's ready, come eat.

In this place, we offer Jesus to the world. We say to everyone, "We know the world does not yet reveal that God is in charge, but here, I this place, you can see Jesus; on the cross, in the water, at the table; God cries out to us; I love you, I forgive you; dinner's ready, come eat."

Amen and amen.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Pentecost 16

A sermon preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Cleveland, GA

TEXTS: Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54, James 3:13-4:3; 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37

I am a big fan of church signs. Traveling as much as I do, I see a lot of them.

Across from Tennessee State University there is a congregation that has the longest name I've ever seen on a church sign:

The House of the Lord,
Which is the Church of the Living God,
The Pillar and Ground of the Truth,
Without controversy, Incorporated.

Without controversy. Whoever heard of a church without controversy?

In light of religion's history of infighting, instead of the Nashville church's claim to be "without controversy," perhaps a church sign I saw in Decatur Georgia is more to the point. This church said it was:


When I saw that sign I burst out laughing. I imagined 60-ish deacons in their Sunday suits engaged in an ecclesiastical version of a bar riot, a baseball fracas, a hockey fight; throwing down their Bibles and wrestling each other to the floor in front of the altar.

The truth of the matter is, the people of God have always been and probably always will be a contentious lot, given to fussing with each other about all sorts of things, some of which matter and most of which don't.

In today's Gospel lesson, Jesus catches his disciples arguing about one of those things that don't matter, not in the family of God, the body of Christ anyway.

They have been fussing and fighting over which one is the greatest.

It is particularly ironic and disappointing that they are arguing about this right after Jesus has told them that as the Messiah he will have to suffer and die for the world, and that as his followers they will need to deny self and take up a cross as well.

He presents them with a model of complete helplessness and weakness and they respond by contending for positions of power and influence. In other words, they don't get it.

In his commentary on Mark, N.T. Wright, NT Scholar and Anglican Bishop, points out that not all Jews of the time believed that God would send a Messiah and among those who did believe a messiah was coming; no one believed that the Messiah would have to suffer, much less to die.

Most believed that THE ONE would come in power and might and strength. They believed the Messiah would come as a military leader, smiting the Romans and their evil, pagan allies, conquering the world in the name of Truth, Justice and YHWH.

So Jesus disciples just didn't get it when Jesus said in verse 31,

The son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.

If they heard his words, they certainly didn't get his meaning. They had figured out he was the Messiah, so they were trying to sort out their positions of importance in the new administration.

Jesus overhears their arguing and calls them on it, asking them "what were you talking about?" And the text says they were silent. They couldn't answer him.

Could it be that in trying to formulate an answer to that question, it began to dawn on them how wrong they were; how far they had strayed from the path Jesus had called them to follow?

I imagine Jesus taking a deep breath, sighing and with a somewhat forced smile, saying, "Come here ya'll, sit down, let's talk. Let me see if I can find a better way to explain this to you."

He then says, "whoever wants to be first, must be last.

If you've read your Bible, you've seen this before, it's a pattern that flows throughout Jesus' teaching and preaching:

Elsewhere he says:

The first shall be last

If you want to save your life, you must lose it

The least of these my brethren

Brother, come up higher

Go out into the hedges and byways and compel them to come in

The rich man's offering and the widow's mite

The rich Pharisee's prayer and the poor man's lament

Lazarus and the rich man in the bosom of Abraham and the fires of Hell

It's called "the great reversal." Throughout his ministry Jesus turned the world's expectations and standards upside down and inside out. He proclaimed that a new and different set of standards would operate in the Kingdom he had been sent to proclaim.

Then, Jesus did a monumentally important thing for the history of the church,
There, on the spot, he invented the children's sermon, complete with an actual child as the object in the object lesson.

Jesus and the disciples were in the ground floor room of a house, it had open windows and doorways, and a crowd had gathered to listen to him teach his disciples. Jesus reached into the crowd and pulled a child, probably a toddler, into the room. Then he said,

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.

With these words, Jesus proclaims his ultimate grand reversal. To us, a small child is primarily a symbol of innocence. We value children and protect children and care for them and are horrified by stories like the one about the man and wife in California who kidnapped that young girl years ago and kept her hidden in the back yard.

But in the ancient world, children were symbols of powerlessness. Outside of normal parental affection, children were, almost literally, nothing. Lutheran pastor Peter Marty, in the Lectionary Commentary says that "in the Greco-Roman world a father could punish, sell, pawn off or even kill his own child."

It is interesting to note that the Greek words for child and servant have the same root and that Jesus used both of these images; child and servant, as symbols of who the Messiah is and who we, the followers of Jesus, are called to be in the world. Children and servants, powerless and defenseless ones, that's us.

Our modern world, gives highest honor and respect to those with power and authority and importance.

People in our world seek positions of strength from which they can control and manage others.

And the call of the Gospel to us today is the same as it was to those to whom Jesus spoke personally:

It may be that way in the world, but it must not be that way among you my followers.

It is not possible for the church to be the church and also be, as the sign said, "without controversy."

On the other hand, just because we have controversy, it is not necessary that we be a "free for all" either.

Through his teaching about the great reversal, the call to child-like-ness, to servant-hood, to powerlessness and humility, most of all though his own humiliation and death on the cross, Jesus has shown us the way forward though our disagreements and controversies.

Rather than aspiring to power and influence and control within the world and within the community of the faithful; our calling is seek to be servants of one another, actively loving each other in the name of the one who first loved us.

And this is love as a verb of action, not a verb of feeling.

To love one another as servants of one another is to make efforts to be kind and generous and open-minded and long-suffering not only when we like each other a lot; but perhaps most especially when we are at odds with one another, when we don't like each other much at all.

In a continuation of the "great reversal" theme, Paul points out in Romans 5,

. . .Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed rarely will anyone die for a righteous person -- though for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. . . .for if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to god through the death of his Son. . "

Jesus told us the way forward, then Jesus showed us the way forward by surrendering all his power and going to the cross. Our call is to follow him in that way in our lives.. In our lives in our families, in our lives in the world, and in our lives in the church. It's that simple. And that difficult.

Remember Calvin and Hobbes, the little boy and his talking stuffed tiger?

One day Calvin said, "I feel bad that I called Susie names and hurt her feelings. I'm sorry I did it."

Hobbes replies, "Maybe you should apologize to her."

Calvin shrugs and ducks his head, "I keep hoping there's a less obvious solution."

We Christians seem to keep hoping that there is a less obvious solution to our problems and disagreements than Jesus' command that we should, well, act like Christians to one another.

Being humble and kind and forgiving and generous and all those things we learned in Sunday School and all too often forget when we grow up.

There is no other way for Christians. There is only the way of the Cross.

Our calling today is to lose our lives into the life of Christ,
To lose our wills into the will of God,
To give ourselves up totally and completely to the one who gave himself for us upon the cross.

Amen and amen.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

September 6

I'm not preaching in a congregation this weekend. I'm the "Spiritual Director" for a "Lutheran Happening" weekend in Nashville. Me and 100 teen-agers. Oh boy! Anyway, i'm giving talks, etc, but not preaching. Here are a few ideas about food from a sermon by my friend Warren Casiday, a UCC pastor in Kannaplois NC.

H. Warren Casiday
September 6, 2009

According to Andy Rooney, the 2 best selling books are: Cookbooks & Diet Books
Cookbooks tell you how to prepare the food.
Diet Books tell you how not to eat any of it.

An old man went to the same diner every day for lunch.
He always ordered the soup du jour.

One day the manager asked him how he liked his meal.
The old man said: It was good, but you could give a little more bread.
Two slices of bread really isn’t enough.”

The next day the manager asked the waitress to give him four slices of bread.
Manager: “How was your meal, sir?”
“It was good, but you could give a little more bread.”

The next day the manager had the waitress to give him eight slices of bread.
Manager: “How was your meal today, sir?”
He said: “It was good, but you could give a little more bread.”

The next day the manager had the waitress to give him a whole loaf – 16 slices
Manager: “How was your meal, sir?”
Man: “It was good, but you still could give just a little more bread.”

Frustrated, the manager went to the bakery, and ordered a 6’ long loaf of bread.

When the old man came in the next day, the manager & waitress cut the loaf in half, buttered it and put it next to his bowl of soup.

The old man sat down, ate his soup, and both halves of the 6’ long loaf of bread
“Now he will be satisfied,” thought the manager.

Manager: “How was your meal TODAY, sir?”
The old man replied: “It was good as usual.
But I see you are back to serving only two slices of bread!”

One of my favorite comic strips was Kudzu – written by late Doug Marlette

In one strip, Rev. Will B. Dunn, the pastor, is reading the Lord’s Prayer in worship
“Give us this day our daily ... low-fat, low-cholesterol, salt-free bread ...”

In the last frame, he is muttering to himself: “I hate these modern translations.”

It is very likely you will go to the store this week to buy bread.
And there will be a large variety of Breads for you to choose from.

This past week, I counted over 50 types & brands of Bread in a smaller grocery store

That didn’t include the Breads in the coolers that don’t have preservatives in them
or the ones you have to bake yourself.

In case you haven’t guessed, my topic this morning is food – Specifically Bread

We rarely think about Bread.
We jump into cars – drive to store – buy our Bread – go home – eat it

The only time we think about Bread is when the store doesn’t have our brand and
we are forced to choose another brand

Br is so easy for us to get Bread

Yet in some countries, Bread can be difficult to get
And whether they get Bread or not can mean the difference between Life and Death.

One reason we laughed at the opening joke is that we love our food so much
we are obsessed with it.

We eat when we are hungry,are feeling down, are feeling happy, the clock says noon.

We eat to, Be sociable, Forget certain events, Feel Comforted.

Ever notice how many snacks and desserts are called Comfort Food

And of course, we eat to survive.

I really do believe that in some ways, we are obsessed with food.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Pentecost 13/ Lectionary 22

A sermon preached at Peace Lutheran Church, Spring Hill, TN
August 30, 2009
Pentecost 13
Text: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

True Story - you can't make stuff like this up. Charlotte, NC. Man bought a box of very expensive cigars. He protected his investment by taking out an insurance policy on the cigars. He insured them against; "decay, spoilage, theft and FIRE."

In the next few weeks he proceeded to smoke all of the cigars in the box.

THEN - he filed a claim with his insurance company, stating that the cigars were lost in a series of small - - -fires.

Of course, the insurance company rejected the claim, which ended up in civil court.
Even though the man admitted smoking the cigars, he won the case because, . . ."the company declared the cigars insurable property, and did insure them against fire, and the Company failed to specify what sort of fire was excluded, therefore the claim is legitimate." The man collected $15,000.

As he was leaving the courthouse, the man was arrested and charged with 24 counts of arson.

After all, he had confessed to setting ". . . the series of small fires . ." which had
caused his loss of property. He was convicted and sentenced to 24 months in jail and was fined $24,000.

Ever since God handed Moses the Ten Commandments on top of the mountain, we human beings have had a long standing debate concerning the letter and the spirit of the law. Both our text and my little cigar story point out the danger of following the letter of the LAW as a way of violating its intent.

As we think about the Gospel lesson, it is important for us to remember that Jesus was a Jew, an observant Jew, a Jew who treasured the Law of God. Jesus took the Pharisees to task for following the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit.

We Christians tend to forget that the Law was given to the children of Israel as a gift, not a burden. Thomas Cahill, in his wonderful book The Gifts of the Jews, reminds us of that fact;
. . . in the prescriptions of Jewish Law we cannot but note a presumption that all people, even slaves, are human and that all human lives are sacred.

This was something new, something unheard of in the ancient world, something that had not been seen in other religions or other codes of law. Jewish Law was a gift to the Jews and to the world; a gift to remind us that our lives are sacred and so are the lives of everyone else.

The problem that Jesus confronts in this text is that the Pharisees chose to obey the rules without remembering the relationships that lie beneath the rules.

If we are honest, we will admit that this is sometimes true of us as well.

We make religious rules that are intended to help us live together as Godly people.
Then, over time, we forget that the rules are there to help us, not to hurt us, in our relationships with each other in the community of Christ.

It's been a while since I was over at the Car Collectors Museum in Nashville. There used to be a 1918 Dodge Touring Car on display there. Its little placard told an interesting story.

In 1918, the father of Albert Hillyard bought this car for $785. In 1921, Albert and his brother got into an argument over who got to drive the car into town on Saturday Night. Their father drove the car into the garage and shut the door. There the car remained until found 38 years later, covered with dirt and chicken manure, with only 1800 miles on the Odometer."

I've thought about Mr. Hillyard and his Dodge touring Car many times over the years. He attempted to heal the breach between his children by making a rule when what was needed was reconciliation.

Papa Hillyard said, Okay, neither one of you gets too drive it!

but I'm willing to bet that the boys just went on to argue about something else, and then about something else, and then about something else. The car wasn't the problem. The problem was the jealousy and strife that lived in that family and in those brother's hearts.

So it is with all of us. Since our problem lies within our hearts the healing must also start there.

Jesus calls us to understand that it's not about the rules; it's about the relationships; the relationship between us and God; and the relationships between us and each other.

That's why Jesus says that, the things that come out are what defile.
And later for it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.

Along these lines, St. Augustine said that, there is a hole in our hearts that only God can fill and also that our hearts are restless O Lord, until they rest in thee.

No amount of rules and regulations and guidelines can change our hearts. Only Gad can do that. Only God's Spirit can move us that way. Only the Cross of Christ; the broken body and spilt blood of Jesus can break our hearts enough that we will let the love of God in to change and reshape us.

Believe it or not, my first real job besides working on the farm with my family was as a daycare worker. I worked at the Community School for People Under Six in
Chapel Hill NC. Besides supervising the playground and changing diapers and serving lunch I had the great pleasure of watching Sesame Street every afternoon from four to five o'clock. Seriously, it was a great pleasure; I really liked it.

One night recently I saw a documentary on the making of Sesame Street.
Someone asked the producer about the reaction of the child actors to working with the Muppets, who are, after all, puppets with a human being crouched on the floor holding them up with one arm.

The producer said the kids don't pay any attention to the humans; they just talk to the Muppets. In fact, he said, there was one child who saw BIG BIRD take off his top half and an actor step out.

The child stared and then yelled to his mother: MOM, MOM, do you think Big Bird knows he has a man inside?

The goal of the Law is to remind us that we have a human being inside, in our hearts, in our souls, in our center of being; in that part of us that makes us something other than a thinking animal.

It is also to remind us that other people have that hidden humanity, that heart, soul, mind; that center that belongs to God, as well.

Our calling is to remember that broken center in our dealings with each other.

It is our calling to remember that we are called to transcend the rules in the name of love.

It is our calling to remember that not only did Jesus die for us, but Jesus died for everybody so that we could all be reconciled to God and to one another.

It is our calling to spread this gracious Good News throughout the world, beginning with our own hearts.

Amen and amen.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

lectionary 20, Pentecost 11

It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe. (John 6:63b-64)

Again this week I have no place to preach but I have a couple of "anecdotes?" "illustrations?" "whatevers?" Here goes.

In her preface to the American edition of "Eats, Shoots and Leaves," (a surprisingly funny book about punctuation) Lynne Truss writes:

By far the oddest and most demoralizing response to my book, however, took place at a bookshop event in Piccadilly. It is a story that, if nothing else, proves the truth of that depressing adage about taking a horse to water. I was signing copies of my book when a rather bedraggled woman came up and said, despairingly, "Oh, I'd love to learn about punctuation." Spotting a sure thing (you know how it is), I said with a little laugh, "Then this is the book for you, madam!" I believe my pen actually hovered above the dedication page, as I waited for her to tell me her name.

"No, I mean it," she insisted -- as if I had disagreed with her. "I really would love to know how to do it. I mean, I did learn it at school, but I've forgotten it now, and it's awful. I put all my commas in the wrong place, and as for the apostrophe . . .!" I nodded, still smiling. This all seemed familiar enough. "So, shall I sign it to anyone in particular?" I said. "And I'm a teacher," she went on. "And I'm quite ashamed really, not knowing about grammar and all that; so I'd love to know about punctuation, but the trouble is, there's just nowhere you can turn, is there?"

This was quite unsettling. She shrugged, defeated, and I hoped she would go away. I said again that the book really did explain many basic things about punctuation; she said again that the basic things of punctuation were exactly what nobody was ever prepared to explain to an adult person. . . .

. . .Throughout the encounter, I kept smiling at her and nodding at the book, but she never took the hint. In the end, thank goodness, she slid away, leaving me to put my coat over my head and scream.
(Eats, Shoots and Leaves Lynne Truss, Gotham Books, 2003, pp. xxi-xxii)

About 15 years ago my family moved to Nashville. We lived in a three room apartment on a hill above a strip mall with a grocery store. Friday night was family night and we went to the grocery to pick out items for home made pizza and desert. This was pre-Blockbuster and the grocery store had a video section where the boys and I picked out the evening's entertainment.

One night I noticed the World War I epic "All quiet on the Western Front," shelved among the WESTERNS. I helpfully took it off the shelf and carried it up to the bored teen-ager at the counter and said, "It's an understandable mistake, but this movie isn't a western. It's about WWI and should be shelved among the dramas." And the kid took it from me and said, "Thank you very much," and placed it under the counter.

The next Friday night, and the next, and the next, this little scenario played itself out. After the third time I gave up thinking anything would change. I continued to do it for the somewhat perverse pleasure of it and as an experiment to see if anything ever would change. After 15 months we bought a house and changed grocery stores. And All Quiet on the Western Front was still nestled among the John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Biblical lost and foundness

As you may have noticed, I haven't posted in a while. this is because I haven't preached in a couple of weeks, nor will I for a couple more weeks. So I am posting this article I wrote for the synod e-news, apropos of nothing exactly and everything in general.

"Biblical Lost and Foundness"

Back in March I lost my Bible. Well not really a Bible; a New Testament with Psalms. Black, about the size of a Reader's Digest magazine, held together with clear shipping tape on the pages and Duck tape on the spine, it has gone everywhere with me since 1993. Hospital rooms and Confirmation Camp; airplane rides and hotel rooms; Oxford University for Summer School of Theology and Moody's Funeral Home for my daddy's funeral; where I was it was there with me.

And then it was gone. Disappeared, vanished into thin air, or so it seemed. I had been on a two-day road trip in East Tennessee: great food from the ladies at Salem in Parrotsville as I met with the area Holston Heritage clergy, a visit to an ailing retired pastor and his wife, a meeting with Good Shepherd, Morristown and then a meeting with the council at Christ, Fairfield Glade, and then a drive through the night to home.

The next morning I sat in my home office and reached in my briefcase to get it to look up Sunday's lessons and IT WASN'T THERE. A massive hunt ensued. Dumped out the briefcase, turned out my suit coat pockets, searched the trunk and under the seats of the car. Nothing. Called all the places I'd been. I asked them to look around for it. Good Shepherd, Morristown had located my pocket edition ELW (which I could have easily lived without) but no Bible. The search reminded me of the shepherd and search for the Lost Sheep or, more exactly, the housewife searching for the Lost Coin. (Luke 15:3-10)

I did all I could. Finally I gave it up. It's not like I didn't have other Bibles, I have a whole shelf full of them. (Eighteen to be exact; I just counted.) But there was something personal about this Bible. Over the years it had become a physical symbol, almost a sacrament, of my faith life and personal struggles, and now it was gone.

I moved on as they say. I bought another small Bible to fit in my briefcase and my pocket. It's a little thicker because it has the Old Testament, but there are other reasons why it's just not the same. It's new, it's unmarked, it's a stranger; not an enemy but not yet a friend.

This experience has helped me be more sympathetic with people who resist change in the church. I confess I have often been identified as the agent of change is some congregations, "and not in a good way," as my son would say. People have resisted, some have gotten angry. They have grown attached to the old ways as I had grown attached to my old Bible. People don't adjust overnight, it takes time.

But we do change, don't we? We do adjust. We learn to cope with new realities. Because we understand that within the new wrappings is the old Gospel; just as a new and unfamiliar Bible contained the same precious words that were in my old one.

And once I had learned that lesson, God gave me my old Bible back. Donna Hoglund from Christ Church in Fairfield Glade was straightening up the library there and found it on a shelf. Someone had found it on the table where I left it and had shelved it with the other Bibles. She emailed me and then mailed it to me, and it's back in my briefcase. Thank you, Donna. And thank you, God, for old gifts in new and exciting wrappings.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Pentecost 7, Lectionary 16; July 19, 2009


(This one is not exactly old and not exactly new. it's half one old one, a dash of another old one and about 40 % new.)

A sermon preached at St. James Lutheran Church, Greeneville, Tennessee.

TEXTS: Mark 6:30-34, 53 -56

TITLE: He Had Compassion

I used to love watching the TV Show Evening Shade.
It starred Burt Reynolds as a small town football coach in Arkansas.

One night the coach's two small children were leaning out the upstairs window, looking at the stars.

Little boy: I'm glad I've got you guys. It sure would be lonely without you.

Little girl: Remember Sunday School.

Boy: Remember Sunday School? What do you mean by that? Oh, yeah. You mean how God is always here so we're never alone.

Girl: Yeah, that's what I mean.

Boy: Well, I know that's right, but sometimes I just need somebody with some skin on 'em.

I think most of us know how he feels. The world can be a difficult and dangerous and lonely place.

And as comforting as it is to believe in a God in Heaven who loves us and cares about us and has a plan for our lives; sometimes you just need somebody to talk to who will talk back.

That's why the people flocked to Jesus. Sure there were those who had heard about his miracles and just wanted to see a good show.

And there were those who were there just because everybody else was there. Friday Night football in Hayesville. Listen to women talk about church and teen-agers talk about who's dating whom.

One night the Methodist preacher told me where to sit. He said, "This is the section for the real fans. The other people are just here because everybody else in town is here."

So there were the thrill seekers and the crowd seekers, but there were also the God seekers, those who had heard about Jesus; had heard about his words and his actions and had come to catch a glimpse of the Holy.

Now, Jesus and the apostles had been really busy and really needed a break. So Jesus said, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while."

They were going on retreat, on vacation, on holiday.

But it was not to be. By the time they got where they were going, a crowd had gathered.

Jesus looked at them and weighed his own and his companions' weariness against something he saw in the faces turned up at him, in the eyes of the crowd.

What was it that swayed Jesus to give up the plan to rest? I think he looked at them and saw their hunger.

Not a hunger for food, but a hunger for companionship, a hunger for community, a hunger for love, a hunger for God.

Verse 34 says, "he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd."

Compassion literally means "to feel with."

Jesus felt compassion for them because he had felt what they were feeling.

After Jesus’ Baptism, the Spirit drove him into the Wilderness to be tempted by the Devil.

There he learned what it feels like to be abandoned, deserted, alone in the universe.

He also learned what one does and does not need in a time like that.

One of his temptations was to feed the world by turning stone into bread.

There in the wilderness, Jesus realized that fixing every human hurt was not to be his mission.

People didn't need a Superman jumping to their rescue.

People needed to know that God was in the world with them, not off in heaven above and beyond them.

People needed to know that God cared, and that God wanted them to care, and to act with caring as well.

So, there in the desert, Jesus came to a momentous decision; he would purposely withhold his power, restrain himself.

Throughout his ministry opportunities for healings came to Jesus, but he didn’t go looking for them. Every time he worked a miracle it happened because of those three little words:


It’s interesting to me how many people don’t believe that, don’t believe that God is love, that God is forgiving and kind and merciful.

Too many people in the world believe that God is anxious to send us all to Hell, that God has plans to send Holy Warriors to Earth in to wipe out the evil doers in a grand final battle.

And if you don’t think a lot of people believe that, check out the popularity of the Left Behind series of novels.

That HE HAD COMPASSION, is the most important thing we can say about Jesus, and about God.

In the midst of a world in which everyone is afraid of their own shadows, and, if they believe in God at all they believe God to be either remote and uncaring, or cruel and vindictive; we in the church have been called to witness to the fact that HE HAD COMPASSION.

Brothers and Sisters, we live today in a world full of fear and war. We are afraid of rising gas prices, we are afraid of failing health care systems, we are afraid of immigration and disease and forest fires and drought and drugs, and, and, and . . .

It has been a long time since I have seen this country, and indeed the world, so depressed and sad and frightened and on edge about the future.

And into this bog of sadness and sorrow, we the church are called to imitate our Lord and find ways to break into the cycle of fear and violence with words and acts of hope and assurance, words and acts of compassion and healing.

Now, that is a mighty tall order isn’t it? What can one little church do? What can one little Christian do? In the face of all this hurt and pain, who am I?

Those must have been the sorts of questions a little Albanian nun asked herself over 50 years ago when she found herself in Calcutta, one of the worst and most hopeless places in the world.

And what she decided to do was to do what Jesus did in our story, she had compassion on the ones right in front of her. She dealt with the need she was given and did what she could.

She began to pick up the dying beggars off the streets of Calcutta and to give them a decent place to die. That was it.

She washed their wounds and their bottoms, she cleaned their sheets and their latrines.

She fed them, and bathed them and turned them on their pallets when no one else would touch them.

She had compassion, one dying person at a time.

We are called to have compassion, to preach compassion, to teach compassion, to live compassion.

We are called to break whatever rules and taboos and cultural barriers necessary to let the world know

God is not harsh,

God is not out to get them,

God is not punishing them for their sins,

God is Love,

God is steadfast, everlasting, never-ending love.

God is reaching out into the midst of our fear of death with an offer of life, of life eternal.


He had compassion then, and he has compassion now.

Open up your hearts.

Let God love you.

Open up your arms.

And show God’s love to the world.


Tuesday, July 07, 2009


Pentecost 6, Lectionary 15
July 12, 2009
A sermon preached at the installation of the Rev. Janet Volk as pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Gatlinburg, TN

Texts: Amos 7: 7-15; Ephesians 1: 3-14; Mark 6:14-29

When I became an Assistant to the bishop, I realized that a lot of my preaching would be on ceremonial occasions; installations, dedications, anniversaries, etc.

I also realized that it would be possible, and easy, to write a really good generic sermon for each of those occasions; an installation sermon, a dedication sermon, etc.

But I perversely decided that I would not do that. I was determined to write a new sermon each week as I had been doing for over thirty years. I decided that whatever the occasion, if I was preaching on Sunday morning, I would preach on the appointed texts.

After reading the lessons for today, I almost changed my mind, for this week at least.

Pastor Volk; at first glance the lesson to be learned from Amos is: try to avoid getting run out of town, and the lesson from the Gospel is: try not to lose your head.

As I read these lessons a line from Mark's Gospel leapt out at me:

Verse 20: "When he (Herod) heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him."

That line reminded me of the installation service, where I ask the congregation if they will receive Pastor Volk as a "steward of the mysteries of God."

Perplexity and stewards of mysteries. It doesn't sound like normal Lutheran language does it.

We are the champions of Systematic Theology, of organizing our thoughts on the faith in clear statements that people can memorize and know.

Look in the back of the Evangelical Lutheran Worship book; there we have Theology for Children, the Small Catechism.

Look at this. This is Theology for Adults; this is the book of Lutheran Confessions, called the Book of Concord.

Seriously, if you want to be perplexed and mystified, just plunge into that one night over a hot cup of tea. Strong tea, I would suggest.

Now a lot of people get impatient with discussions of religion that plunge into mystery, that are somewhat perplexing and confusing.

We all hanker for things to be simple. I used to joke about writing a book called "Christianity for Dummies," until I saw one in a store. It was selling very well.

We want that "old time religion," which the songs says, was "good enough for Paul and Silas, so it's good enough for me."

Well, there was nothing simple about the "old time religion" of Paul. A serious look at the complex ideas and reasoning in our lesson from Ephesians will show us that.

(Read bits and pieces of Ephesians with quizzically raised eyebrows)

Part of the calling of the pastor is to risk inviting congregations out of their comfort zones,

to dare to share with them the whole counsel of God,

to ask them to grow up beyond a childish Sunday School Faith into a mature adult Faith.

Like Amos in our first lesson, Pastor Volk has been called by God to preach to God's people.

And like King Jeroboam, sometimes the things God calls her to say will not be to our liking.

And like King Jeroboam and his priest Amaziah, we might be tempted to claim the church as our place, not God's place, and claim the right to tell the preacher what to say.

For that is what happened to Amos. He spoke the truth and nobody wanted to hear it. So the priest told Amos to go way, and then, in verse 13 said this, "never again prophecy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is the temple of the kingdom."

We all have to be careful on this point. This is God's house, this is God's sanctuary, this is God's temple, this is God's church. It's not your church, it's not Pastor Volk's church, it's not my church, it's not Bishop Gordy's Church, it's not the ELCA's church; it is God's Church.

In a few minutes I'm going to ask Pastor Volk if she will promise to preach and teach according to the scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. You, people of God, are to hold her to that promise and to question her when you're not sure she's doing that.

But you are also to remember it is not her calling to tickle your ears with pleasant things you want to hear; it is her calling to rightly divide the word of truth and challenge you to grow in your faith and godly actions.

Which leads us to John the Baptist losing his head?

The reason John was in jail is mentioned in the text, but it's like trying to follow the story line of a soap opera. It can get a little confusing. So let me break it down for you.

King Herod here is not the same King Herod who was around when Jesus was born. That was his Daddy, Herod the Great. This is Herod Antipas.

He was, by all accounts, not much of a man or a ruler. And this royal family's bedding and marrying habits were unconventional and messy to say the least. It really was a soap opera.

Herod Antipas had married his brother's wife. This wouldn't have been so bad, except that his brother was still living and Herod forced him to divorce Herodias so he could marry her.

And the daughter who does the dancing? Jewish historian Josephus tells us her name was Salome. She was the Herod's niece and his wife's daughter and she ended up marrying his brother, her uncle. Sounds like a bad redneck joke, doesn't it.

Into the midst of this comes John the Baptist. He surveys the whole mess and calls Herod out on issues of morality and leadership. He points out to Herod where he has failed to be a good leader to the people, both politically and in his personal life.

Herod's reaction is interesting. He has John arrested and put in jail; but protects him from his wife's revenge. She is really mad and wants John dead; but Herod is a little afraid of him.

What if he is Elijah? What if Herod does need to repent? What if God is displeased with the way Herod is leading his life?

Herod is a perplexed seeker, a dabbler in the mysteries of God. He believes just enough to keep him awake at night but not enough to change his way of living.

All too often, we are like Herod. We keep holy things in the basement of our lives; we're not willing to throw them out, but we're not really sure what to do with them. We live our lives without paying a lot of attention to the holy, to the call of God on our lives because we are perplexed as to how taking that stuff seriously might challenge us to be different than we are.

And truth be told, most of us are happy with the way we are and don't want to change; because if we really wanted to, we would.

It is Pastor Volk's calling among us to so proclaim to us the good news of Jesus Christ that we are inspired to bring our holy things up out of the basement and place them in the center of our living space.

It is her calling to speak to us the wonderful love of God in Jesus the Christ that we will repent and turn and seek to follow God's way with our entire body, mind and spirit.

It is her calling to show us in word and deed what it means to live a life centered on the Kingdom of God and not the Kingdom of self.

And it is our calling to support her in her efforts; to pray for her, to listen to her, to talk with her, to work with her, to the end that God's church, God's temple, God's sanctuary may show to all of Gatlinburg God's unending love in Christ.

Amen and amen.

Thursday, July 02, 2009


July 5, 2009

A Sermon preached at the Installation of the Rev. Sandy Niiler as transition pastor at Christ Lutheran Church, Cullman, AL.

TEXTS: Ezekiel 2:1-5, II Cor. 12:2-10, Mark 6:1-13

TITLE: When is a Loss a Win?

My younger son is an athlete. He played a lot of ball on a lot of teams in the last 20 years. T-Ball and baseball, soccer and football. And basketball; lots and lots of basketball.

He played on some good teams and some bad teams. He played on a High School State Champion and for a team that won only four games. Sometimes he was an All-Star; just as often he was all bench.

I learned my most important lesson as a "sports Dad" when Joseph was still playing coach pitch baseball. They weren't a very good team, losing a lot more often than they won.

They were seven years old, and most of them had the attention span of a gnat. They spent more time jostling and picking on each other than paying attention to what was happening on the field.

After the game was over, as they lined up to shake hands with the other team, I would hear the boys ask the coach, "Did we win? Did we win?"

If the coach said YES they would cheer, if the coach said NO they would kick the ground. And after that they would ask, "What's for snack?"

As a society, as adults, we are obsessed with winning and losing, with success and failure, with bottom lines and final scores. Our attitude was summed up years ago by football Coach Vince Lombardi when he said, "Winning isn't the most important thing, it's the only thing!"

This is Alabama. You know what I'm talking about. Football coaches had better be the best and win the most or they're history. In North Carolina, it's all about basketball but it's the same way; win big or be gone!

As a nation, we have returned to the days of the gladiators, except in a more humane form; we don't kill the losers on American Idol and a host of other competitive "reality shows."

Sometimes, in this age of Political Correctness, we try to deal with this problem by eliminating the concept of competition and the rating of performance.

A few years ago the KUDZU comic strip had a cartoon on church league Softball.
The Rev., pastor of Bypass Baptist, tells his teen-age protégé, "I hate playing the Unitarians. They want to change the rules."

"Which ones, Rev."

"Well, for example, instead of three strikes and you're out they want to make it three strikes and you're special!"

When my older son was in Cub Scouts, he participated in the Pine Box Derby.
At the contest they crowned one champion. The district director told the boys,
"Don't forget, you're all winners."

On the way home David looked at me and said, "If we're all winners why don't we all get to go to the state contest? And why didn't we all get a big trophy instead of this stupid ribbon?" Good questions. Kids know the difference between winning and losing. They just don't think it's the end of the world like we adults do.

We can't deal with the issues of winning or losing, success or failure, by pretending it doesn't matter or by redefining the rules so that nobody loses.

We can only deal with winning and losing by putting success and failure into perspective and redefining the after the fact importance of our wins and losses.

We must learn to discern WHEN A LOSS IS A WIN.

Each of the lessons we read from the Bible deals with someone in the midst of a losing situation. We encounter these people at a time of very real and painful failure in their lives.

And their losses, their failures, go beyond competition and games.
Their failures are failures at life, failures at their vocation, failures in health, and failures in faith.

EZEKIEL: the prophet to whom no one would listen.

PAUL THE APOSTLE: the healer who could not heal himself.

JESUS: Hometown Miracle Man who could work no miracles at home.

Each of them learned a valuable lesson from their failure.

Each of them learned how to know WHEN A LOSS IS A WIN.

EZEKIEL - Ezekiel's story begins like all good prophet stories:
- the people are acting like total pagans
- they have turned their backs on God and Godly ways
- God decides to send a prophet to straighten them out
- Chapter 1 - Ezekiel has a vision
- Chapter 2 - God begins to speak to Ezekiel
Vs. 1 and 2 - Listen up, I want to talk to you
Vs. 3 and 4 - my people are rebellious, I want you to tell them

SO FAR SO GOOD, AND SO NORMAL. This is how it works with God and
prophets and the people of Israel in the Bible.

- then, in verse 5 - God says a strange thing: "Whether you succeed or not, win or lose, is not the issue. The important thing is that they hear the truth; that they know that "there has been a prophet among them."

As it happens, the people didn't listen, and God sent them into exile, and the people rewarded Ezekiel for this preaching by treating him very shabbily.
By all external measures, Ezekiel failed and failed miserably. But Ezekiel's loss was a win; because he a faithful to the truth. When Ezekiel was finished, the people knew there had been a prophet among them.

PAUL - Nobody knows what Paul's "thorn in the flesh was," but that is not important. What really matters is that Paul prayed very hard and very long and very faithfully for this thorn to be removed and it wasn't.

Paul lost the struggle for victory over a physical problem, and this loss created for him a spiritual problem, a crisis of faith.

This failure to pray himself out of this physical problem led him to question his faith. It was an experience that could have shattered his trust in God, but instead it humbled him and strengthened his faith in God. Paul's thorn in the flesh was a LOSS THAT TURNED INTO A WIN.

The paradoxical nature of Christianity is that:
- faith does not remove obstacles; it sustains us as we climb them,
- faith does not protect us from pain; it teaches us to live with it,
- faith does not eliminate Death; it teaches us not to fear it.

A LOSS IS A WIN if our faith is deepened and our ability to survive adversity is strengthened and we learn to trust more completely in the grace and love of God.

JESUS - The story of Jesus returning home to preach occurs early in his ministry.
Up until now, Jesus' version of Brother Love's Traveling Salvation show and Tent Revival had been a roaring success.

Immediately before this he had raised Jairus' daughter from the dead and healed the woman with the flow of blood.

The first five chapters of Mark are filled with healing stories and reports of huge crowds of people coming to hear Jesus preach.

So, he takes it on home to Nazareth; and falls flat on his face.

Verse 3 - They didn't just not like him; they "took offense at him."

Verse 5 - and somehow, their resentment resulted in his inability to perform
miracles and other healings.

Verse 6 - contains one of the most human portraits of Jesus in the Gospels;
"He was amazed at their unbelief." Jesus just couldn't believe their lack
of belief. He was stunned, left with his mouth hanging open.

Jesus learned a hard lesson; that there was a limit to his power; it was limited by the people's unwillingness to receive it.

Thirty-two years ago I served my first year as a pastor in a tiny Methodist Church in the North Carolina countryside. I was not very successful. My supervising Pastor, Dr. Nick Grant, told me, "Son, you can't minister to people who don't want to be ministered to."

That day in Nazareth, Jesus had a LOSS THAT WAS A WIN. From it he learned the limits to his power.

He learned you can control what you say, you cannot control what people hear.
He learned you can control what you do, you cannot control how people respond.
He learned you can control how you show your love,
you cannot control how people receive it.

Pastor Niiler, as you assume your duties here today, please remember that like Ezekiel, you have been called here to speak the truth. When you do that, it is a win.

Pastor Niiler, please remember that like Paul, you have been called here to do your best and to let God do the rest.

Pastor Niiler, please remember that even Jesus had his bad days, and you will too, and that you are called here to love these people, not to fix them.

And people of God, it is your calling to learn from your recent past about the limits of human ability to control the way things turn out. Your call today is face the future with confidence, trusting God to lead you through. AMEN AND AMEN

Friday, June 26, 2009

Pentecost 4, Lectionary 13, june 28, 2009

A sermon preached at the installation of Pastor Marie Hatcher as transition pastor at Christ Lutheran Church, Nashville, TN

LESSONS: Lamentations 3:22-33, Ps. 30, II Corinthians8: 7-15, Mark 5:21-43

Of Faith and Fear

For a few years National Geographic carried a regular feature called Zip Code USA,
in which they focus on the place and people within a particular Zip Code.

In June of 2006, it was 27030, my home town, Mt. Airy, NC.
The article focused mainly on the Bunker twins, Eng and Chang "Siamese" twins, made famous by PT Barnum. When they retired, they settled in Mt. Airy and raised families.

As an aside the article mentioned the local custom of radio obituaries.

Now, for years I have told a story about the "Moody's Obituary Column of the Air,"

The story I have told has to do with eating breakfast at my Grandparents' house.
We all lived on the same farm, in houses about a quarter of a mile apart.
I spent one or two nights a week at my grandparents' house, which was good because instead of cereal I got bacon and biscuits for breakfast, but which was bad because I had to sit very still and eat very quietly so that Grandpa could listen to the "Moody Obituary Column of the Air."

It always began with eerie organ music, then a deep, deep voice said,

And so it went through 5 or 6 names.
Now, over time, I developed the notion that the voice on the radio was the voice of God. Who else would know all that stuff about all those people?

And I further decided that the purpose of the obituaries was to warn the rest of us to straighten up and fly right.

After all, didn't Jesus say that he would come like a thief in the night, and weren't these death stories the first thing we heard in the morning?

So I ate my breakfast in trembling silence, and went out into my day trying to be as circumspect as possible.

One day, my Daddy dropped me off at Elmer Timmons' barber shop to get a haircut while he went to town on business. I liked Elmer's. It was a small concrete building in the corner of his yard. He had lots of Boys Life Magazines and Superman comic books, and always gave us suckers.

I also liked Elmer because his name was a lot like mine. I went in and called out "Hey Elmer!" and Elmer replied, "Hey Delmer!"

There was someone in the chair, so I started reading, when suddenly, my blood ran cold, my heart almost stopped, I couldn't breath, because God had spoken, not three feet away from me, and God said,


And I did what any reasonable, impressionable, imaginative, fundamentalist 6 year old would have done. I ran to the bathroom, turned out the light, locked the door and hid under the sink. (It took quite a bit of gentle coaxing and promises of candy to get me out of that bathroom, where Elmer did the best he could to explain the concept of radio announcer to me)

In our Gospel lesson, I was struck by the words FEAR and FAITH.

After the woman with the flow of blood touched Jesus and he stopped and asked who touched him etc, it says she "came in fear and trembling, fell down before him and told him the whole truth. He (Jesus) said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well."

In the wrap-around story of Jairus' daughter, at this point , the text says, "some people came from the leader's house to say, "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?" But Jesus says to the man, "Do not fear, only believe (have faith)."

As demonstrated by the story of the obituaries, when I was a child I had a lot of faith, I also had a lot of fear. My faith was faith in the reality of God, not any sort of trust in the goodness or compassion of God. And my fear was rooted in a fear of the power of that real but vengeful God I had conjured up from Sunday School and Fundamentalist preaching and comic books and horror movies and God knows what else.

As I have grown older, faith and fear have remained in dynamic tension in my life. Just as my faith has matured and become more sophisticated, my fears have grown less generalized and more realistic.

But they are still there as they are for all of us. All of us fear things: terrorism, avian flu, economic collapse, earthquake, fire and flood, to name a few.

And the last few years have shown us that our fears are realistic and founded in reality, not fantasy as were mine. And the question is, as we face these realistic fears, where do we place our faith, our assurance and hope for the future? In money and its accumulation and clout? In armies and governments and secret agents?

The scriptures call us to trust in God, a thing much easier said than done.
Lamentations reminds us "that the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, (God's) mercies never come to an end." and then goes on to talk about those times when one feels abandoned by God, a realistic look at faith in the face of fear.

The Psalm repeats this theme, as in "then you hid your face, and I was filled with fear" but also cries out, "O Lord, My God, I will give you thanks forever." And our lesson from 2 Corinthians reminds us not to hoard our money in time of other's need, but to share our resources with the needy, trusting in God to provide for us through them in our time of need. Generosity is an act of faith overcoming fear.

Christ Lutheran Church is in the midst of its own uncertain times.
A long pastorate has come to an end. As we all know, there was some disagreement and lack of peace and harmony in the last year or so. The question is: are you going to face the future with FEAR or FAITH?

Are you going to reach out to one another the way the woman in the story reached out to Jesus for comfort and healing? Remember; the church, we, you and I, are the body of Christ, and we have God's spirit and healing power flowing through us. ARE WE GOING TO FACE THE FUTURE WITH FEAR OR FAITH?

Today we install Pastor Hatcher as your transition Pastor, it will be a major part of her calling to lead you forward in facing your fears with faith; faith in God and faith in each other as God's People, Christ's Church, Christ's BODY in the world. A body that is called this day both to be healed and to be a healer in the world.

amen and amen.