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