Friday, May 29, 2009

Pentecost, 2009


A sermon preached at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Andrews, NC on the occasion of the 40th Anniversary of Pr. George Simmons’ ordination.

Text: Acts 2:1-21

A few years ago, USA Today ran a story about the Connie T. Maxwell Home in Greenwood SC in its Life section.

The article told about how the Baptists of the state had started the home as an orphanage and as times changed had adapted to serving children in any sort of need.

They had an interview with the director, a cheerful but harried woman, who told heart-breaking stories of the children’s lives before they were brought to Connie T. Maxwell.

The reporter asked how she, and the other staff, cope with such constant stress and pain in others.

The director smiled and said that you had to keep a sense of humor and perspective. She showed the writer a file in her desk where she kept an anonymous collection of cute, poignant or funny things the children had said.

The director said, “Whenever I get over-whelmed, I just open this drawer and read a few of these and I feel better.”

USA Today printed several of the things the kids said. My favorite is this, from a 9 year old boy:

Germs, germs germs, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. That’s all I ever hear about around here and I ain’t never seen either one of them.

That young boy sums up a problem that Jesus addresses in our Gospel Lesson, or at least in the section of the Gospel of John in which our little 2 verse Gospel Lesson is found.

It is Maundy Thursday and Jesus is in the midst of trying to explain everything to his disciples before he leaves. I’m not so sure they’re getting it, and neither is Jesus.

He realizes that when he’s gone, they’ll be like the little boy, hearing and talking about Jesus without ever seeing him. So Jesus promises an answer, a solution to this Never Seeing Jesus problem. THE HOLY SPIRIT.

In our text he calls it the COUNSELOR and THE SPIRIT OF TRUTH, but it’s the Holy Spirit he’s talking about.

I think probably the disciples heard that and looked at each other quizzically and nodded like they understood when they really didn’t and then promptly forgot what he said.

We are all familiar with this; it’s what we all do when our husband or wife or boss or teacher or other significant other tells us things we don’t understand and don’t care enough about to ask for clarification.

So, they kind of forgot about it, and then the crucifixion and the resurrection and the hiding out and then the resurrection appearances of Jesus’ popping in and out of their lives for a few weeks happened and then the ascension, with Jesus’ floating off into heaven happened, and in midst of all that, who could remember a little uncomprehended promise about a Counselor; I mean, really?

So, here they were minding their own insignificant little Messianic Christian storefront cult business, singing hymns and praying and still hiding out from the Authorities when whoosh, Jesus’ promise comes gloriously true.

Noise, wind, fire, voices shouting, movement, out of control religious excitement; of one thing we can be absolutely certain; the first church was definitely NOT Lutheran!

The church was born in answer to the problem of talking about Jesus without being able to see him. Germs, germs, germs, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. That’s all I hear about around here and I ain’t never seen either one of them.

Though I understand what that young man was talking about, I would beg to differ.
He saw Jesus every day in the very existence of that home, built and supported by the Church. He saw Jesus every day in the people who bathed, fed, disciplined, taught and loved him.

The church is the place and the people where Jesus is not just talked about but is shown to the world. It is not by accident that the New Testament constantly refers to the church as THE BODY OF CHRIST.

Too often we think of the church in personal terms, in terms of what am I getting out of it, of how am I being fed, of how are my needs being met, etc.

To think that is to mis-understand the nature of the church.

The Church is mentioned in the third article of the Creed, the part devoted to the Holy Spirit. That is because the church is a work of the Holy Spirit in the world.

Luther’s explanation of this part of the creed says that the church is:

“called, gathered, enlightened, made holy and sent”

The Holy Spirit is active in the church calling the world to God. We each of us have been called here by the spirit, we have been gathered together not just for convenience sake

(not because talking to a lot of people at once is more efficient than talking one on one or because we need more voices to make the hymns sound better, or the more people we have the better we can pay the pastor)

No, we are gathered because it is the nature of human beings to need each other, to need to learn with and from each other, to learn to support and care for each other.

It is in the midst of the gathered community that we become truly HOLY, not perfect, not ideal, not without problem or moral struggles and flaws, but HOLY, devoted to God and aware of God’s presence in us and in others and in the world.

And it is as we have been gathered and enlightened and made holy that we realize that we have not been made those things for ourselves and for our own benefit and for our own personal growth, but for the world.

We realize that we have been gathered so that we might be sent, sent into a world that needs love, that needs care, that needs compassion, that needs to see Jesus in the midst of the toxic germs of modern life.

In his book RED LETTER CHRISTIANS, Tony Campolo tells of sitting down to dinner in a restaurant in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Seated next to the front window, he looked up from his plate to discover three little boys with their faces pressed against the window, staring at his plate full of food.

The waiter came by and pulled down the shade, “Don’t let them bother you, enjoy your meal.” (Campolo, RED LETTER CHRISTIANS, P. 24)

There is a world just outside these walls that is starving for what God has to offer them. And the question is: are we going to pull the shade? Or are we going to get up and go deal with them?

We have been called, gathered, enlightened, made holy and SENT, sent into the world to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the lonely and down hearted, to be available to people in need wherever we might find them.

Now, one might ask, what does this have to do with the 40th anniversary of Pr. George Simmons’ ordination to the Gospel Ministry?

And my answer is that Pr. Simmons is a living example of what I’m talking about.

I don’t need to give you a list of the things George is involved in in the community. Just name it, he’s in it. Everybody in town knows George, and more importantly they know George is good, they know George is compassionate and they know George is there representing Jesus and the Church.

Over 40 years ago George answered the call to ministry. He gathered with others also called at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary where they were more or less enlightened and made holy. And from there he was sent. Sent out to congregations in Richfield and Greensboro and Rocky Mount and Andrews NC.

Sent out to preach the word with tongues of fire, sent out to show the love of God to all comers, sent out to enlighten and make holy those whom the Holy Spirit has called and gathered together. Sent to lift up the shade on the world’s need, sent to lead us out to serve the world.

George on behalf of the ELCA, the North Carolina Synod, Saint Andrews Church and my personal family, let me say thank you, good and faithful servant, thank you.

Amen and amen.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Easter 7, May 24, 2009

I wrote this one three years ago. I can't really improve upon it. I preached it at the Lutheran Church of the Holy Family in Highlands, NC in 2006. I'll preach it at the Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity in Elberton GA this week.

Easter 7, May 28, 2006
Texts: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; I John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19
Secular Context: Memorial Day weekend

“they do not belong to the world. . . .As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”

For most of us, Memorial Day is simply the excuse for the first long weekend of the summer; a chance to take a little trip, to get a head start on being in a summertime sort of mood. Go to the beach or the lake, grill out and chill out.

A few years ago, a writer in the Nashville paper complained that churches don’t celebrate Memorial Day anymore, by which he meant, I presume, the playing of patriotic music, etc. A pastor wrote back saying that the Church has a higher agenda than a secular holiday, that the church is obligated to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ above all else.

I found myself agreeing with each of them. As the son of a man who served and suffered in Europe in WWII and as the nephew of a man who died in the Pacific at the age of 19 fighting the Japanese, I too lament our turning a “Holy-Day” intended to show respect for their sacrifice into an excuse for a long week end.

On the other hand, the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ can not take second place to any other agenda in the life of the church. And, I kept thinking about Jesus’ words in our Gospel lesson, about not being of the world, but being sent to the world.

How can we talk about this subject in the church without either dishonoring the dead or glorifying war?

True story. Small Southern town. Town Council asked a young
architect and landscape artist to crate a Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial out of a narrow vacant lot downtown.

He landscaped the lot into a grassy knoll with winding walkways, flower beds and park benches. He created a “triptych” monument, moderately sized, out of local granite. On the two side panels were listed the locals who had served and died in Vietnam. In the center he designed an etching of one weary soldier carrying a wounded buddy on his shoulders. It was cruciform without being a cross. It was meant to evoke service and sacrifice and “no greater love”.

The Town Council approved and applauded everything but the etching. They didn’t like it. It was “defeatist”, and “negative”; not “upbeat” and “positive”. So that got a stone cutter at the quarry to etch in the scene of raising the flay at Iwo Jima instead. They even painted the Red, White and Blue on the Flag.

Wrong symbol from the wrong war, but that didn’t matter to them. American honor was all that mattered.

That story can serve as a parable of our ambiguous attitudes toward war. On the one hand, we lament the loss of life, we honestly mourn those of our families and communities who died, we carry a deep sorrow for their pain and suffering. We mean it. We are not hypocrites.

But, on the other hand, we sometimes get carried away with our pride in America’s military might, with its “win-loss” record if you will. By replacing the cruciform symbol of service, sacrifice and suffering with one of victory and triumph, the town council said to the Vietnam Veterans,

We want to remember that you served and that some of you died. We just don’t want to remember that you, we, lost and that we shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

As Christians, we must always shy away from the glorification of war. War is mean, nasty and ugly. It is the result of the failure of humanity to settle issues of economics and ethnic tensions peacefully. War is the eruption of our inherent sinfulness on a national and global scale. War occurs when Pride and Materialism and Greed and Hatred of the Other overcome the Divine call to peace with justice. For Christians, War comes when we forget that we are not of this world, but are sent into this world by the Prince of Peace, to spread the Gospel of Peace.

Memorial Day is an opportunity to prayerfully remember those who have suffered and died because of the world’s inability to live love and justice on an international scale.

One of my childhood pastor’s explained Original Sin this way:

Original Sin means that there is something in us that just can’t wait to mess up a good thing.

The longer I live, the more right he seems. At the beginning of the 20th Century, much was written about how the World was on the cusp of its greatest Golden Age. Science, Technology, Learning were leaping ahead at a record pace. The end of war and disease and poverty were practically in sight, or so it was thought.

A look back at the last 100 years shows a much different picture. We have seen 2 world wars, the rise of totalitarian governments, the use of weapons of mass destruction, new diseases and behaviour related health problems. We are trying to destroy the earth and sea and all that is in them. What happened? Well we did. We, the human race. We, all of us. Original Sin erupted and continues to erupt in our persistent proclivity for messing up a good thing.

What we do on Memorial Day is weep for those who lost their innocence and perhaps their lives in the service of their country.

My Daddy lived until he was 80. Until he went to the hospital a week or so before he died, he lived in the house he was born in.

The only time he spent any real time away from there was when he was in Europe in WWII. He never told us much about it. Until the last year of his life, and then in bits and pieces. Buddies who were there and then blown up, little French and German children stepping on mines or begging for food. As I sat at that kitchen table, listening to him talk, coffee cup in one hand and cigarette in the other, I began to understand his years of staring into the distance, the emotional distance, the stoic devotion to duty.

And as he began to weep, his 80 year old shoulders going up and down, as he cried for someone named Willie from Oklahoma, I cried for Willie and Daddy and millions of others, American and English and French, Korean and Vietnamese and Iraqi and Afghan and all those caught up in the senselessness and pain.

On Memorial Day, we remember and weep and commit ourselves anew to going into the world with the light and love of Christ.

Amen and amen.



Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Building Dedication, non-Lectionary texts

The Three pastors mentioned in the middle of this sermon are Middle Tennessee Lutheran pastors who served their respective churches 30 to 40 years.

Building Dedication, Christ Lutheran, Clarksville, TN
Sunday Afternoon, May 17, 2009
Texts: I Chronicles 29:10, 14-16; Psalm 84; Hebrews 11:13-16; Luke 9:57-58

My younger son graduated from college yesterday morning. Got an honors degree in English and a minimum wage job writing for a weekly paper. Graduated yesterday, starts work tomorrow; probably sleeping off the celebration today. It’s all good.

His graduation marks a milestone, a red-letter date, in our family. For his mother and me it feels a bit like crossing the finish line of a marathon that started twenty-six years ago when his older brother was born.

But of course, it’s not really over, is it? About a year ago I was talking, complaining really, to my mother about something one of my supposedly bright and mature sons had done and then called me about.

I whined, “Don’t they ever grow up?” And my eighty year old Mama said, “You’re talking to me aren’t you.”

Anyway, I went to commencement yesterday at Brevard College. 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 your journey with Jesus?

Have you completed the race, the marathon of discipleship?

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

I don’t think so. Like my son, I think I’ll give you a night to celebrate and a day to sleep it off, then it’s time to get up, get going and get to work in the Vineyard of the Lord.

Our Gospel lesson for this service begins with the words “On the road.”

The New Revised Standard Version says, “As they were going along the road,” which shows that they were not stopped on the road, they were moving down the road.

This chapter 9 is the beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. For the next 9 chapters Jesus is on the road, on a journey, on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the cross.

One thing is for certain; no one can accuse Jesus of false advertizing. When someone said, “I’ll follow you anywhere,”

Jesus was blunt in pointing out that this would not be an easy trip. To follow him was to be a journey into homelessness and discomfort.

Immediately after our text, two others come to Jesus with similar excitement, but also with excuses.

They say, “I’ll follow you anywhere, but first let me, bury my father, say good-bye.”

Jesus is somewhat ruthless in telling them to let the dead bury the dead, to leave home behind, get on the bus or get out of the way, it’s time to finish that old life, it’s time to commence the new life.

WE are on a journey with Jesus. Sometimes it is a physical journey, a relocation journey.

I went to my 30th High School reunion a, um, few years ago. And I got the award for having moved the most, for having lived the most places.

That had to do with the nomadic nature of pastoral ministry. Though some people like Richard Smith at Trinity, Tullahoma or Paul Frank at St. Timothy’s, Hendersonville or Eric Pearson at St. Andrews, Franklin are blessed with spending many years in one place, most of us in the pastorate find ourselves journeying for Jesus.

But just because you don’t move around a lot doesn’t mean you are not on spiritual pilgrimage.

My father died in the house he was born in and lived on and worked on that same plot of ground for 80 years and I never knew anyone whose mind and heart were more active in seeking out new things and new directions.

We, all of us, are on a journey with Jesus. We are going from the old Adam to the New Creature in Christ; from who we were to whom God is calling us to be.

We have this day marked out and blessed those things God has provided to assist us and move us along on this journey.

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.

As Martin Luther said, “We are born again each morning,” when we remind ourselves we have been baptized, 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.

The Pulpit, where God’s word is read and proclaimed to us. 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 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?
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 do here today is dedicate this place to be a stopping place, a hospice, an inn, a shrine, for people on a journey with Jesus.

A place to catch your breath, to wash your soul, to take some nourishment, to reflect with fellow travelers about where you’ve been and where you’re going, a place to hear about what comes next down the road, to receive encouragement to keep going or permission to stop and rest a while.

We are on this journey because the Bible teaches us this world is not our true home. We all came from God and we spend our lives on a journey back to where we came from.

The French Priest and Scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin put it like this:

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.

Our human experience is one of pilgrimage, of journey. Sometimes the journey is physical, often it is mental, always it is spiritual.
The church is the community of those on a journey with Jesus, those who are “called, gathered, enlightened and made holy” as the Small Catechism puts it.

We are called out of the world into the church. It is in the Church Community that we are gathered and enlightened and made holy so that we may be sent back into the world to do God’s work in God’s name.

You have been called and gathered and enlightened and made somewhat holy. Are you ready to commence? Ready to be sent out in God’s name? Let the church say Amen.

Friday, May 01, 2009

May 3, 2009, Easter 4, The Good Shepherd

The Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 3, 2009

Texts: Psalm 23, John 10:11-18

“The Shepherd of the Sheep”

Will Rogers said that the only thing he knew about politics was what he read in the papers.

I find myself with an even greater handicap, the only thing I know about Sheep and Shepherds I read in a Bible Commentary.

I know more about mules than I want to know. We had two when I was growing up and we used them in raising tobacco.

I know a lot about cows. We had one that we milked by hand, and my uncle had a dairy next door.

I even know a considerable amount about hogs having helped my wife’s father with his for several years.

But again, I don’t know anything about Sheep and Shepherds, except what I read in the Commentaries.

Now here’s an interesting thing that occurred to me this week.

Bible commentaries are written by Biblical scholars,
who learned what they know from an older generation of Biblical Scholars, who learned from an even older generation of Biblical Scholars, so . . .

I began to wonder how far back you have to go until you find
a Biblical Scholar who actually, really, personally, experientially
knew anything about Sheep and Shepherds.

These reflections lead me to two very comforting conclusions:

1) Most preachers don’t know any more about Sheep or Shepherds than I do.

2) The text isn’t about Sheep and Shepherds anyway.

The shepherd was a very powerful image in Israel.

For much of their history, they were a nomadic people dependent upon their sheep. Because of this, sheep imagery was very important,

The King of Israel was often referred to as the Shepherd of Israel, harkening all the way back to King David, the traditional author of Psalm 23, who is The King by whom all kings were measured, and who began life as a shepherd boy.

The ancient kings of Israel were seen to be different from the kings of the nations around them, in that they were seen not as divine themselves, but as human beings who represented God on earth and ruled in his name.

The idea was that God had placed the responsibility for the nation in their hands. The kingdom was not theirs, it was God’s and they were to take care of God’s kingdom in God’s name and with God’s help.

A story that North Carolina’s Lutheran Bishop, Leonard Bolick, likes to tell is illustrative here.

A pastor organized a Holy Land Tour. While in Israel, he was the chaplain and tour guide. One day the group made a bus trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

Along the way the Pastor told the group how they would see many sheep and shepherds and to think about how Jesus was the Good Shepherd and how shepherds always went in front of the sheep leading them; he never went behind, beating or pushing or shoving them.

Along the way, the bus had to stop in the road for a herd of sheep to pass. The good reverend was shocked to see a man with a stick beating and cajoling and pushing and shoving the sheep along. He got off the bus and confronted the man,

“Look here, everything I’ve read says the shepherd leads the sheep with love, doesn’t come from behind beating and pushing.”

“That’s true,” the man said, “but I’m not a shepherd, I’m a butcher.”

A true king, a true leader of Israel, was a shepherd, not a butcher. The kings and priests and prophets of Israel were given the responsibility for taking care of GOD’S Flock.

And, as the Historical parts of the Hebrew Scriptures tell us, they often failed at this task; there were many bad kings, lousy priests and false prophets.

When Jesus compares himself to a shepherd, it’s not really a farm image; it’s more a religious and political one.

The important TRUTH he is speaking is that whereas the previous leaders had been poor or incomplete or unfaithful leaders, or, to use the language of the text: “hired hands” who “leave the sheep and run away,”

Jesus lays claim to being “the good shepherd,” who “lays down his life for the sheep.”

In other words, Jesus is saying, “In the past, God gave the responsibility for the people of God over to the Kings of the country and the Priests of the Temple and the Prophets of Israel, but now God has given over that responsibility to me, Jesus of Nazareth.”

And the sheep know the true shepherd, they know my voice, Jesus says.

During the Palestinian uprising of the late 1980s, a village near Bethlehem refused to pay its taxes, maintaining to do so would be to finance the Israeli war machine that was oppressing them. In response, the Israeli commander confiscated all the farm animals in the village, confining them in a large, barbed-wire pasture.

A woman came to the commander to ask for her sheep back. She said that since her husband was dead, they were her only livelihood and she had several children to provide for. The commander shrugged and pointed at the pasture and said, not kindly, that to fulfill her request would be impossible, he had no way of knowing which sheep were hers.

She bargained, “If I can find my sheep, can I have them?” and the commander agreed. The gate was opened and the woman went into the pasture with her small son. Out of his pocket he took a small reed flute and began to play it; all over the field, heads began to top up. Soon, the young boy and his mother walked down the road, still playing the flute, followed by 25 happy sheep.

We are Christians, the people of God, because God’s voice has gotten through the static of our hectic, noisy, modern lives.

We are Christians because the “still, small voice,” of God has slipped in underneath the busyness of our existence and tugged at the apron strings of our hearts, getting our attention and moving our souls.

Christianity is not so much a matter of believing certain things as it is of hearing that voice and trusting it with your life.

Throughout my years in the ministry, I have had some people speak some very kind words to me about my preaching, and I have no false modesty, I appreciate the praise.

But I always hoped and prayed that people realized that the voice they heard was not my voice, it was the voice of the shepherd speaking through me.

It’s the same voice that speaks through the Scriptures and through the liturgy and through the hymnody and through the Choir Anthems.

It is the voice of deep crying out to deep, of Christ’s spirit seeking out our spirits and calling us to come into the presence of the lover of our souls.

The hearing of the Shepherd’s voice is the difficult part of this. Just hearing the voice is not enough. Only 25 sheep out of the hundreds in the pasture lifted their heads and followed when the young man played his flute.

Those of us who gather here on Sunday mornings have in one way or another heard and recognized the voice of our Master, our Saviour, our Lord.

Some of us are more sure than others, some of us hear it more clearly and distinctly than others, but all of us have heard it; that is why we are here.

And, to various degrees, we have all put ourselves into the hands of that Shepherd; we have trusted Him with our souls and our lives. We feel secure in the promise that we will not be “snatched away,” by the wolf.

The one question that remains is what are we to do about that voice here and now, in this time and in this place.

In order to follow the voice of the Shepherd, we are to follow him and do what he did. Not just Pastors, but all of us. That is the true meaning of Luther’s idea of the “priesthood of believers.”

We, the church, are the shepherds, and the hurting, lonely, lost people of the world are God’s scattered sheep. And we are called to go out to them with the Voice of the Shepherd, calling them home, calling them home to God, calling them home to safety, calling them home to love.

We are the voice of Christ in the world. What people know of God’s law, they learn from us; what people know of God’s forgiveness, they hear from us; what people know of God’s love, they experience from us.

Too often, we fail to appreciate how important we are, each and every one of us, to God’s work in the world. We fail to realize that Christ our shepherd has placed us in a position to shepherd others and will carry us through.

Gladys Aylward, missionary to China, shy, quiet woman working in an orphanage in the 1930’s. When the Japanese invaded, she was forced to flee, but she would not leave without her flock, a hundred children. With only one assistant, she led them out walking over the mountains to Free China.

Gladys grappled with despair many times in her journey, and after one cold sleepless night, she cried and wept and said, over and over, “I can’t do it, we won’t make it.”

A 13-year-old girl reminded Gladys of their much-loved Bible story of Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea.

Aylward, threw up her hands and wailed, “But I’m not Moses!”

And the girl replied, “Of course not, but God is still God!”

God is still God for us as well.

What is the Voice of Christ calling you to do today?

Will you answer? Will you follow?

Amen and amen.