Category: Weekly Sermon

Someone You Love Has Died

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    You don’t live too long until someone you love, someone you love dearly,  dies.  For me it was my Father  He was 53.  I  was 31.  I had no inkling that it was coming.  It was a cold January evening in 1975.  I was serving a small church in Philadelphia.  At the dinner table the phone rang.  I answered.  It was my father s pastor who passed on the unbelievable news  that my father had a heart attack while driving home from work, and didn’t make it. 

    Some of you have had shattering moments like that.  Or you have loved  ones whose life came to an end by some wasting disease, or by the ravages of old age.

    I immediately called my best friend in the church, John Marian,  whose own father had died the year before.   Did you ever notice that when you are going through hard times you don’t want to talk to somebody who has had an uneventful life?   No you want to seek out someone who has been beaten down by life and somehow–maybe the grace of God–has been able to stand on their feet again.   You want to talk to someone who embodies Ernest Hemingway’s line in A Farewell to Arms:  “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” 

    So on that sad night I asked John if he had the same reaction I was having:   Numb, like being shot through and through with NOVOCAIN?  Anger at the unfairness of it all?  Not anger at  God, I never thought God had caused my father’s death.  His heart attack was due to bad genes, and a bad diet, a lack of exercise,  smoking since he was a teenager.  But a raging unfocused  anger.

    I can’t remember my conversation with John but at the time I really needed  someone who understood what it was like.  In a small way my  conversation with John began to help thin out the sorrow. 

    Someone you love has died.  Today I want to talk about that, and say a few words about what we go through in that crucible. 

    The first thing I want to say is– at the outset– not much helps, especially words.   We know that and that’s why we canvass our minds to select the right words to offer a grieving friend

    Well meaning people say to us:  “He s in a better place.  Or he’s joined your mother in heaven.” You want to punch them in the face, don’t you?

    Or the old standard:   “I’m sorry for your loss.”  That’s so lame and so trite?    That’s why we bring food to the house, or send flowers or and sympathy cards.

    But occasionally someone says something to us in our grief that lifts our spirits.  In the receiving line at the funeral home hundreds of people came to offer their respects to my mother, my sister, and myself.  I don’t remember what any of them said, but one.  One old lady told me, “Your father was the kindest business man I ever met.”  Those words have lodged in my heart for 44 years.  

    My mother outlived my father for 40 years.  She took over his insurance business, and did well.  She began going out with a friend from our church, whose own  wife had died.  They became an “item” and spent over 20 years together.

    We moved her out here to the Woodmark in Sun City in late 2014. She lived  here for 9 months until she died in August, 2015.  We celebrated her life at Pinnacle Presbyterian Church in Scottsdale where I was serving on the pastoral staff and then another service at her home church in Winston-Salem.  

    Last week when my daughter was here we went through all the sympathy cards sent to me upon my mother’s death.  There were well over 100.  I am always impressed with a sympathy card or birthday card that comes in the mail.  That means that someone had to drive to the store, peruse all the cards to find just the right one, go to the post office, buy a stamp, sit down, write a note on the card, and mail it.  An email is quick and doesn’t require much effort, but a sympathy card is impressive.

    I want to read you a couple of sympathy cards, which have now taken on new meaning that they didn’t have three years ago.

    A note from Pat Thompson: “Tears are the prayers for that which is not easily spoken.”

    Sharon Dolan Although she enjoyed a very long life, she was still your mother.”

    Mary Meese We’ve been gone for a month in Italy.  So sorry to hear of Mildred’s passing.  Our prayers of peace and comfort are sent to you.”

    If your grief is fresh, what I am going to say in the next five minutes or so may seem overly philosophical or theological.  But it’s important and you may find it helpful to go back and read it online in the coming days. 

    We usually think of death as something to be avoided, an enemy, if you will.  But death is part of God’s plan, God’s wise plan  for human life. 

    I have a private nightmare.  We’ll live for hundreds of years, sitting in our recliners, hooked up to a room full of artificial hearts and livers and lungs.  No it is part of the good news that life is short.  Death brings us to face up to life.  So let us address death as would St Francis: “Brother death, Sister Death.”

    Suppose we could live forever.    I could imagine taking decades deciding whether I should come to this church or consider other options.  I can imagine every Session meeting lasting a month.  (Now there’s a vision of hell–endless committee meetings!!!)   It would take me eons to write a sermon.  I procrastinate enough as it is.  When you think about it, without death, life would be interminable.    This is what the Psalmist means when he says, “Lord, teach us to know how few days we have, and so gain wisdom of heart.”  (Psalm 90)

    Nicholas Berdayev, a religious philosopher, has written, “It is death which gives depth and seriousness to life.  If life were endless everyone could put off doing duty indefinitely because there would be no pressure of time.”

    Doesn’t Berdayev’s observations strike responsive chords in all of us?  Because it gives us a sense of urgency.  It’s what  William James meant when he expressed the fear that he would not have the time to say all that he had to say.  I think of the ephemeral nature of life and recall that John Keats was haunted by the fact that his life might cease before his pen had gleaned all the thoughts of his mind.  And Keats was in a hurry. He died of consumption at age 25.

    Mozart died at 35.  Gerard Manly Hopkins, the finest religious poet in the English language, died at 45.  Shelly died at 30.  Lord Byron at 36.  Franz Schubert died at 31, leaving an “Unfinished symphony.”  Schubert’s life is a parable of all of our lives.  Even if you live past 31, even if you live to 91,  life is an unfinished symphony.  There are more books to read, more music to listen to, more mountains to climb.

    Someone asked Pablo Cabals, why at the age of 89–and already the greatest cellist in the world–he still practiced four hours a day.  “Because,” “he said, in a huff, “I think I may be getting better.”   Casal’s s statement reflects what we all feel deeply.  Just as we are learning how to play the notes correctly, just as we are learning how to life rightly, we die.

    There was a sign on a church that said, “Remember Detroit is not the only place where the Maker can recall His product.”

   

                        II.

    I have tried to make the point that death makes life more urgent and more important.   Let me finally say a word about how death affects our life with God.  It’s a strange thing that those closest to God, those who most intensely feel God’s presence in every place and moment are the people who feel the best is still ahead.  So Bach writes one of his most beautiful arias, “Come, sweet death.”  And a black slave writes, “I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?  A Band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home.”

    Maybe the best thing about death is that, according to the promise of the Christian faith, it will give us the life we have always wanted, but which has always been beyond our reach.  The life which has always been beyond our reach because our own sin and limitation has prevented us from grasping it.  The life we have always wanted, but never been able to achieve because we were born with mental limitation, or contracted some wasting disease.  The life we have always wanted but which was beyond our reach because other people, in their sin and evil, kept us from it.  Some day, at the time of our death, the life everlasting, the abundant life, will be given us.

    And one final sympathy card.  Called “I believe.”  I believe that  hope survives, love prevails, tears cleanse, memories comfort, faith soothes, good thoughts reassure and you open it up to read: And that our belief in a better place calms the heart.”

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Someone You Love Has a Drinking Problem

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Feb 24 2019

        In the United States  17.6 million people, or one in every 12 adults, suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence.

         Nearly 88,000 people (approximately 62,000 men and 26,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the fourth leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

      In 2014, alcohol-impaired driving fatalities accounted for 9,900 deaths (31 percent of overall driving fatalities).

    Ten per cent of the children in the U.S. live with a parent with alcohol problems.

    And here is the most staggering statistic of all.  Fifty-three per cent of Americans report that one or more of their relatives has a problem with alcohol.  Yes, that’s half of us.

    My grandfather, my mother’s father, was an alcoholic.  On Sundays after church we would go to Nannie and Pa Pa’s house for Sunday dinner.  Pa Pa would almost always be hung over.  I spent a summer with Nannie and Pa Pa when I was a boy.  I can still vividly recall those terrifying evenings when he would return home from work completely drunk.  The screaming, the threats, the tears.  It was awful.  Back in those days alcoholism was viewed as a moral flaw, not a medical illness. 

    My mother told me that when she married my father that she said to him  if he ever took a drink, she would leave him.  Such was the painful memories she had growing up. 

    And then I grew up, married Barbara, and we had two children.  When our kids became teenagers, both of them abused alcohol. I came to find out some years ago that my younger sister was an alcoholic.  Yes, the demon strikes good families, Christian families, responsible families.  No one is immune.

    In 1988 I was called to be pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest, IL.  Lake Forest is the home of the high and mighty, some of the wealthiest and most successful entrepreneurs and business people in the United States.  Adlai Stevenson had been a member of our church.  The lieutenant governor of IL was a member of our church.  I was a small sapling in a forest of tall timber. 

    Now here is what you need to know about me.  I grew up in a small two bedroom home.   There was never enough money.   My father was an insurance agent.  We were one notch above dirt poor.

    So when I moved to Lake Forest I had been reared in very humble backgrounds.  I wasn’t he Lake Forest type  monied and priviledged, that’s for sure.  I wondered how I would do among people who ruled the world.  

    So I arrived in  Lake Forest in 1988 and I began my ministry.  One of the members of the church who reached out to me and became a great friend was Wes Christoperson.  Wes had been the president of Jewel Foods (like Safeway or Frys) and then named CEO of Northern Trust in 1984.  Northern Trust was one of the top 100 banks in the US and 11th most profitable.

    When he retired in 1990 he would call me every Friday, the day I worked on my sermon.  The call would come in about noon.  He would ask, “How’s the sermon coming?” meaning, is it about finished so we can play golf in a few hours.   

    Wes was married to a lovely and gracious woman who befriende Barbara.  One day she came into my office very distraught.  She wanted to talk about Wes’s drinking, which had been a problem for years

    I  referred her to addi etion specialist, who met with her and her family.  Everyone agreed upon an intervention with Wes, a family meeting where each family membeer pleads for their loved one to go into treatment.

    The family asked me if I would be present Unfortunately I had to be away on a trip I couyld not change.  So I wrote a letter to Wes to be read during the intervention. inter

April 21, 1992

My dear Wes:

    The first letter I received from a member of this congregation after my candidating sermon in 1988 came from you.   It was affirming of my sermon and welcomed me as the new pastor of First Presbyterian Church. 

    I read the letter first, then the signature, “Wes Christopherson,” which meant nothing to me at the time.  Then I saw at the top of the letter the Northern Trust letterhead and your position as Chairman of the Board. 

    That letter meant more to me than you could have ever possibly known.  I was insecure and uncertain about how I might do in Lake Forest.  Your letter helped me sense that I could minister to a congregation with many high-powered and capable business people.  At the time, I was like the kid in AAA ball getting a chance to go to the major leagues.  Your letter told me that I should come, because I could “hit the major league pitching” in Lake Forest.

    Then I came, and we had to face our Twenty-First Century Campaign.  You stepped up to chair our major gifts committee, and I figure that you and I together raised at least about half of our total.  You took the initiative in making calls and keeping the committee on track.  In so doing, I consistently felt your support for my ministry and this important undertaking for our beloved church.  That, too, was more important than you know, for the campaign was hard for me personally, and something I was not really crazy about doing.  You were a pillar of strength to me then.

    At some point we started playing golf together.  You are the only person in town who calls me consistently to play golf. What a great thing to get a call about 1:00 p.m. on Friday afternoon with that question, “Is the sermon finished?”  And we’re on the first tee by 3:00! 

    Somewhere along the way as we spent more time together and talked about work and politics (you were still wrong about Lynn Martin!) and family, we crossed the line between pastor and parishioner and became friends. 

    As we have gotten to know each other better and better over these past four years, I began to understand, at least a little bit, what makes you tick, and the things you believe in.  I learned that your countless efforts at fund raising for seminaries, and universities, and schools, and scores of other worthy projects grows out of your deep inner conviction that we are placed on this earth to be good stewards of God’s resources and built a better future for our kids.   In you I have seen embodied the quotation I saw at the University of Pennsylvania Presbyterian Hospital: “The greatest use of life is to spend it for something which will outlast it.”

     I have grieved privately more than I could tell you over your two cancer surgeries, because I felt the possibility not of losing a parishioner, but losing a dear friend–someone who has been a constant source of strength for me, someone for whom my admiration and respect is boundless. 

    Two days ago I learned through Myrna that your friends and family are planning to talk with you on Sunday, April 26 and encourage you to go into treatment for alcoholism.

    I will be in Oregon for a board meeting this weekend, but had I been in town, I would have been present, and would have joined my voice with theirs in saying, “Go into treatment, Wes.  Go into treatment.  Do it not just for Myrna and the girls, but do it for yourself.”

     You deserve to live in these retirement years as a whole person, spiritually, physically and emotionally whole.  I saw a saying just this week:

It’s not just the length of life

That counts.

But also its width,

And breadth.

     For however many years God will grant you ahead, whether one or ten or twenty, you should live those years fully, and healthily and helpfully. 

    And you cannot do that while drinking.

    I know of what I speak.

    My entire family has been grievously wounded by alcoholism.  My grandfather, my mother’s father, was an alcoholic.  My mother, as the child of an alcoholic, carries scars from that to this day, and she is now 67.

    Our daughter and son both abused alcohol as teenagers.   Barbara and I spent three years in Al Anon.  So I understand alcoholism.  I also understand that there is help and hope and healing for alcoholics.  I could tell you story after story of people who got treatment for their alcoholism and now are sober and happy.

    I know you have heard many times that alcoholism is a disease.  But now it’s absolutely vital that you understand “the disease concept” for yourself.  No one wakes up one morning and decides to become an alcoholic.  It is a slow process that usually takes years.  So insidious is the disease of alcoholism that people become addicted without realizing what is happening.  A variety of factors play a role in alcoholism–genetic predisposition, family background, personality, social environment, and, of course, using alcohol. 

   

     When you learned you had cancer, you did what any sensible person what do.  You got treatment for the disease.  I remember how anxious you were to have a certain surgeon operate on you before he returned to Europe, because you wanted the best treatment in the world.

    So now you have another disease, a disease which can be successfully treated. 

    I know Myrna wants you to get treatment for this disease, and become well and whole again.

    I know the girls want you to get treatment for this disease, and become well and whole again.

    I know your friends want it.

    And I want you to get treatment for this disease and become well and whole again.   I’m looking forward to many more years of calls on Friday afternoon. 

    And I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that I KNOW God wants you to get treatment for this disease and become well and whole again.

    Wes, there is no one in the world I respect more than you.  I have always known you to be a person who does the right thing, whatever the circumstances. 

    I know you will do the right thing now, enter treatment, and by the grace of God become sober and lead a long, wide and broad life.

    I will be praying for you on Sunday while I am in Oregon, and I will call you when I get back to town.

                                      Your friend always,

           

                                      Terry V. Swicegood

   

     On the afternoon of April 26, 1992, Wes’s wife, his three daughters, three sons-in-law and an interventionist therapist met with Wes.  They each told him how much they loved him, how worried they were about his drinking, and urged him to go into treatment.  He read my letter.  He agreed without any argument  to go into treatment.  Myrna had his suitcase already packed; they drove to O Hare airport and flew to Tucson, where he spent a month in treatment.    He said that he used to sit in our church each Sunday praying that the Lord would help him.  The interventionist, a former nun, told me that women go into tretament kicking and screaming, men go as quietly as lambs.

    He never drank again.  His prayers in church were answered.  And for the rest of his days he became the new creation I read about from II Corinthians a bit earlier.

    I have said all this today because I know in every congregation there is at least one person struggling with alcohol abuse themselves or who has a close friend or family member who is struggling.

    I want to say a couple of things about that.  If you yourself are struggling I would be happy to talk with you in stricktest confidence.  I can point you to help.  That help involves intensive treatment and becoming involved in A.A., Alcholics Anonymous.  You can’t do italone. 

    If you have a close friend or loved one who has alcohol problems you yourself cannot save or cure them.  Your best course is to find an Al Anon meeting and start attending regularly. Al Anon is an organization of friends and family members of alcoholics.  Barbara and I, as I said in my letter to Wes, attended Al Anon for three years.  It saved my sanity

 You can google “AA in Phoenix” and find out where there are AA meetings and Al Anon Meetings.

    The heart of AA and Al Anon iss the 12 stepo program, Working the steps, with the hlp of a sponsor and fellow strugglers, is the key to sobriety and a new creation.

12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

    We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.

    Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

    Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

    Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

    Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

    Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

    Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

    Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

    Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

    Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

    Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

    Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

God grant me the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change;

Courage to change the things I can;

And wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;

Enjoying one moment at a time;

Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;

Taking, as He did, this sinful world

As it is, not as I would have it;

Trusting that He will make all things right

If I surrender to His Will;

So that I may be reasonably happy in this life

And supremely happy with Him

Forever and ever in the next.

Amen

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Someone You Love Drives You Nuts

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February 17 2019

Romans 12   (If at all possible, leave at peace with all persons)

    Let’s face it.  There are some people who just drive us nuts. People we know.  People we love.   They have the devious and uncanny ability to know just what buttons to push to set us off. The earth is too small to have both of us living on this same planet.  Or so it seems.  It’s like that woman about whom was said, “She never swore but she made everyone else want to.” 

    What do we do about it?  Well, conventional wisdom tells us to get back at them.  Bring them down somehow.  Let other people know what   bottom feeding scum they are. 

    In the movie “The Godfather,” the godfather says, “Don’t get mad, get even.”   There is something within all of us that would love to see people we don’t like get theirs.  Since we are non-violent people, we don’t want to see them hurt or injured, but we wouldn’t mind seeing them suffer a little mental anguish.   That’s why gossip is so delicious and insidious.  We can bring another person down by a few choice words laced with barbed wire.

    Sometimes we are driven nuts by little things people do, and sometimes their offenses against us are worthy of the major leagues.  There was this want-ad in the LA Times a few years ago.  “Would the man who abandoned his wife and infant on at 425 Church Street, San Bernadino in August, 1982 please contact me at this address.  I am that infant son and I am now 21 years old and I would like to knock his block off.”

    Well, it’s understandable.  I know people who are still grinding their teeth over their ex’s when the marriage ended decades ago.  A woman came in to see me because she was so hurt that her husband had left her.  It had been four years.  She had every right to feel hurt and betrayed, and I acknowledged that.  But after listening carefully, I said, “Sally, he’s remarried and you aren’t even on his radar screen.”  Here you are expending enormous psychic energy in thinking about him.  We need to figure out how you can move on.”

    A very nice looking truck driver  came into a diner and sat down, ordered a hamburger and cup of coffee.  Just as the waitress delivered his order, a gang of Hell’s Angels motor bike riders stormed into the diner.  They passed by his table, then one of them stopped, grabbed the man’s hamburger, and took a bite from it.  Then he took the man’s coffee cup, and poured the coffee all over the remaining hamburger. The rest of the Hell’s Angels all bent over laughing.

    The truck driver never flinched, never changed expression.  He walked up to the cash register, payed his bill, gave the waitress and nice tip, and walked out of the diner.

    When she walked over to take their order, one of the Hell’s Angels sneered, “Ain’t much of a man, is he?”

    “Nah,” she said, “and he ain’t much of a truck driver either.  He just ran his 18 wheeler over three motorcycles.”

    We like that story.  We like to see those who deserve it get their comeuppance, especially if we are personally involved.

    Vengeance is sweet.  But as Gandhi once observed, “If everyone insists on an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, the whole world will be blind and toothless.”  On an international scale, this is exactly what we are seeing this morning between Israel and Hezbollah and Hamas.  Unless there is an interruption in this ongoing retaliation, the consequences for everyone, including those of us here so far away from the middle east, would be too devastating to even contemplate.

    But we are not talking about international relations today.  We are talking about personal relations.  Or so it seems.  But the difficulty between individuals spreads out like concentric circles, until families get involved, and communities and states and nations.  The unrest, discord, and violence in our own hearts spreads inextricably outward, like circles in a pond when we throw a rock into it.

    That’s why it’s so important for us to get a handle on how to deal with people who drive us nuts.  We can’t solve the problems of the Middle East, but we can, as God’s own people, live in such a way as not to infect the world to any greater degree with gossip, revenge, retaliation, and discord.

    For our watch word today let’s take this little verse from Romans 12, “If at all possible, and as far as within you it lies, live a peace with all people.”  I can just envision a little smile forming on Paul’s face as he writes these words, “If at all possible, and as far as within you it lies, live at peace with all people.”

    Paul planted some churches where people drove him nuts.  They questioned his credentials, his leadership, his authority.  Paul had encountered some people who made peace wherever they went, and some who made peace whenever they went.”  So he knew about difficult people.  And he knew that there were just some people we will never get along with.

    What do we do about them?

    Well, I think Paul would tell us not to gossip about them, not to speak words about them that would demean them.  In difficult cases, when we’ve really been hurt, I think Paul would counsel us to pray for them.  “Lord, help me forgive that…dirty rotten rat.”  Maybe that’s the only prayer we can muster at some point, but if we pray for the Lord’s help in being able to forgive, the other person will never change, but a slowly dawning miracle will take place in our own hearts.

    A psychiatrist named George Ritchie worked with survivors of Nazi concentration camps after World War II.  He tells the story of one survivor he called “Wild Bill”:

“Wild Bill was one of the inmates of the concentration camp, but it was obvious he hadn’t been there long.    His posture was erect, his eyes bright, his energy indefatigable.  Since he was fluent in English, French, German and Russian, as well as Polish, he became a kind of unofficial translator…

Though Wild Bill worked fifteen and sixteen ours a day, he showed no signs of weariness.  While the rest of us were drooping with fatigue, he seemed to gain strength…I was astonished to learn when Wild Bill’s own papers came before us one day, that he had been in (the concentration camp) since 1939.  For six years he had lived on the same starvation diet, sleep in the same airless and disease-ridden barracks as everyone else, but without the least physical or mental deterioration…   

Wild Bill was our greatest asset, reasoning with the different groups, counseling forgiveness.

“It’s not easy  for some of them to forgive,” I commented to him one day…”So many of them have lost members of their families.”

“We lived in the Jewish section of Warsaw,” he began slowly,  the first words I had heard him speak about himself, “My wife, our two daughters, and our three little boys.  When the Germans reached our street they lined everyone against a wall and opened up with machine guns.  I begged to be allowed to die with my family, but because I spoke German they put me in a work group.”

“I had to decide right then,” he continued, “whether to let myself hate the solders who had done this.  It was an easy decision, really.  I was a lawyer.  In my practice I had seen too often what hate could do to people’s minds and bodies.  He had just killed the six people who mattered most to me in the world.  I decided then that I would spend the rest of my life–whether it was a few days or many years–loving every person I came in contact with.” 

The psychiatrist George Ritchie concludes his account of Wild Bill with these words: “This was the power that had kept a man well in the face of privation.”

     Obviously, Wild Bill was an extraordinary man, and had a capacity to forgive and love far beyond mine or yours.  But what we had in large measure can be ours in a smaller measure–the welling up in our hearts of the power of Jesus Christ, a power that comes to us as we surrender our lives to Him.  It doesn’t mean that people will get any easier to get along.  That will never happen.  But it does mean that we will be given new resources, new resources that come to us own high, to get along with them.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Deliver Us From Evil

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February 3 2019

    Words, words, words!  We are bombarded with words–from brief and clever tweets of 140 characters to rambling blogs posted by anybody who owns a computer and is connected to the internet.  We carry our smart phones  and receive emails 24/7.  We get phone messages wherever we are: on the golf course, in the grocery store,  in the car.  Text messages come to us in the movie theater and even in church!  
    Words, words  words!   And it’s not enough to watch the news on CNN.  Simultaneously,  underneath the telecast, a ticker runs across the screen informing us of other late-breaking developments.   
    But no matter how many words we are immersed in, there are moments in our lives when words are not adequate. 
    A friend loses  her mother unexpectedly, a couple we love are splitting up, our daughter has a miscarriage.  And we can’t seem to find the right words to say to express what we feel.
    So many disasters in the world simply take our breath away.  The earthquake in Haiti, the floods in Houston and Puerto Rico.  The never ending quagmire of Afghanistan– and we all wonder how it will turn out, and will the sacrifice of our soldiers have made any difference at the end of the day?  (2200 killed) 
    We become numb to the ceaseless violence here in this country and abroad.    And we don’t know how to interpret all this to our children, or even ourselves.  So much needless pain in the world.     
    We canvass our minds to find the right  words to make sense of all of this.    But no matter how hard we try, sometimes the words  stubbornly refuse to rise to the tips of our tongues.  
    They especially escape us when we are facing the evils of pain, injustice, and brokenness in any form. Jesus knew  these pains, all too well, walking and talking each day with broken humans beings in a tragic world.   It’s why, when Jesus is teaching us to pray, he includes the line: Deliver us from evil.
    Deliver us from evil. Deliver us from the times when there are no words.
    A few years ago, I faced a time when I could not find the words to deliver me from an awful situation.  After more than 30 years of successful ministry, after being pastor of the 10th largest Presbyterian Church in the United States, I found myself serving a church in Jackson, MS.   After 6 months there, I knew I should have never taken the call.    I tried everything in my power to make it work, but nothing did.  Finally, after serving in Jackson for two years, the Session  voted 11-7 to ask me to leave.  
    Some of you here have been fired and downsized, so you and I could give a clinic on the experience, couldn’t we?  I will give you the short version of the “Getting Fired Seminar.”  No matter how successful you have been in the past, no matter how robust is your self-esteem, getting fired makes you feel lower than a pregnant ant.  
    So here I was 56 years old, over the hill for a minister or for nearly any professional in this society.  Here I was without a job and without any prospects for a job.  Here I was 9 years away from blessed retirement.  (Why am I smiling when I say that?)  Here I was, having lived through an absolutely hellish ministry in an absolutely alien culture,  and feeling that I would never be  happy or fulfilled in the Christian ministry again.  
    And I, who make my living being a wordsmith, could find no words to help me.  So I found myself praying desperately to God, deliver me, deliver me, deliver me…
    To add to all that, I felt so terribly alone; I felt  I had let down my wife, who had agreed to go to Mississippi, despite profound, underscore profound reservations.   I had moments when I envisioned homelessness or selling paint at Home Depot   After all, what does an unemployed 56 year old minister do?    
    Deliver me, deliver me, deliver me….Dear God, give me the words to make sense of what is happening to me now.
    When we pray this prayer, what exactly are we seeking?  
    On one level, we are seeking the right words, that is to say, some comprehensive understanding that helps us make sense of a situation that is greater than we are.  
    But also, when we pray this prayer, we are harboring an unrealistic hope that the situation will change, that it will somehow come out right, right being what we define as right.  We are praying that we won’t have to go through the pain and travail that this situation is handing us. 
    It’s so human and so understandable for us to ask God to deliver us from pain, brokenness and evil.   To take away the cancer, end hunger, and stop wars and natural disasters.   To give us the answers.  To provide a solution.  
In our text from Romans 8, these beautiful words that the Apostle Paul is writing to the church in Rome, he tells us that in the midst of our struggles, when we don’t know what to say, when we don’t pray as we ought, that the spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.
    When we don’t know what to pray, when we pray for the wrong things, when we are so lost in  grief, depression, and anxiety, the spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.
    The Spirit takes over and does the talking for us.
    This is what happened to me as I started searching for a new job.  I got my resume spiffed up, started applying for new jobs, and started getting some interest.  I spent a lot of time crafting a statement on why I was leaving Briarwood after only two years that I could share with pastor search committees.  After all, a search committee sees that you’ve only been in a job for two years, and they say, “Damaged goods.”  So I knew I needed a good explanation.  Here’s what I wrote, in part.  

Why I Resigned From Briarwood

    In recent weeks I have made an important decision.  It’s a decision that I have prayed about for the last nine months, and I believe it comes from the leading of the Holy Spirit.  It’s a decision that Barbara and I affirm and rejoice in.
    I have resigned as pastor from Briarwood Presbyterian Church as of July 1st.   I have done so because I believe that I am better suited for a different kind of ministry than I have here, and that Briarwood would be better served with a different pastor. 
    Why resign after only two years of ministry?  When I came to Briarwood, the Church Information Form indicated that the annual budget of the congregation was $560,000.  In the first month of my ministry, the church held its stewardship campaign, and the pledged amount was $384,000.  Briarwood was facing a $180,000 deficit from the outset of my ministry.   No one at Briarwood had analyzed the fact that the church had lost a number of significant givers (due to death and moves) over a two year period prior to my coming, and the loss of those gifts had not been replaced.  
    I came to Briarwood, in part,  because it was a multiple staff ministry.  A talented associate pastor was already here, and I looked forward to sharing the ministry with her.  When she left to take a new call in August, 2000, the Session determined that we could no longer afford an associate pastor.    That was disheartening and discouraging to me, and in my mind, changed the equation significantly.  I was now solo pastor of a church of 550 members, and with the financial short-fall still a reality, there would be no relief in sight for many years.
    Over time I began to realize how much I missed the larger church.  I recalled the joy I had in Portland (1000 members) and Lake Forest (2300 members).  I loved being there as pastor and head of staff, and I realized that my heart yearned to serve a larger, multiple staffed church.
     I came to understand, as well, that my style and approach did not fit all the people at Briarwood.   Although I’m from the South, Mississippi is part of the deep south; I have learned that it truly helps “to be from here.”   Many people who have come here from other places have shared with me their own difficulties “to fit in.”   My approach to people and issues has always been honest and straight-forward.   That approach was appreciated in other settings.  But here, it was seen by some as to direct and abrupt.  
    I have come to understand over time, that my leadership gifts and style do not match the needs of every congregation.  There is “the right chemistry between pastor and congregation.”   I have had that right chemistry in other churches.  I actually have had it with most of the congregation here, but not with everybody.    
    Given the fact that I was feeling led to seek a new call, and given the fact that “my style and approach did not fit everyone at Briarwood,” I thought it was time to resign and move on.  The ministry is not about me, but about Jesus Christ.   I feel grateful for my time at Briarwood, for in this time I have learned and grown much, and now, more than any time in my life, I am focused on what I do best, and filled with a deeper spiritual strength and serenity. 
    I believe the best years of my ministry are still ahead.  I await on tiptoe what God is calling me to next.
    Well, that’s a pretty nice spin, isn’t it?  Within a couple of months I had some good leads.  One of those was First Presbyterian Church, Wilmington, DE, a robust congregation of 2000 members.  As I was being interviewd by the committee, they  they asked me about my ministry at Briarwood.  I was ready.  I had my polished statement memorized.  But I didn’t get more than two lines into it, when something brought me up short.  And I blurted out something which I am sure was just a tad shade short of babbling.  I said, “You know, I have been in the ministry for 32 years.  I think if you will check back with my references that people will tell you that I’ve always left churches stronger than I’ve found them.    But I came up against something at Briarwood that I couldn’t deal with.  I didn’t know how to deal with the problems of the church–a declining church in a changing neighborhood.  I couldn’t deal with the cultural expectations.   I was really unhappy there, and they were unhappy with me, and the Session voted to remove me as their pastor.  You need to know all that about me, and today, as I sit here, there’s part of me that feels like a failure, and a lot of me that has been broken in this process. 
    When I got back to my motel room that night, I thought to myself, “Well that little maudlin confession was a deal-breaker, if ever there was one.”
    But you know what?   It wasn’t.  They offered me the job.  THEY OFFERED ME THE JOB.  And when I asked the chairperson why they did that, he said, “It was your telling us about Briarwood, and we all agreed that we wanted a pastor who knew what it was like to be hurt by life, and has made it back, at least part of the way.”      
    On that night, before that committee, the Spirit spoke for me.
    What I learned that night is that we have the gift of God’s eternal word,  especially when we don’t have words ourselves. And the Spirit is always, always there breathing those words when we can’t cough them up ourselves.  
    Dear God, deliver us.  
    Deliver us from thinking that our ways are always the right ways, and that our answers are always the right answers.
    Deliver us from the despair of believing that we have reached a dead end in the road, and there is no way out.  
    Deliver us from believing that when something awful happens to us that it is beyond the reach of redemption.
    Deliver us from thinking that we are alone in our struggles.    
    This powerful scripture from Romans 8, which for my money is the greatest passage in the NT, reminds us that we always have with us the eternal Word, Jesus Christ, interceding   for us.   It is THAT  word that provides our deliverance.
For neither death nor life, (nor cancer nor war)
Nor rulers nor angels (nor who is in the White House at any given time) 
Nor thing present nor things to come (nor job less nor infertility nor grief)
Nor power nor height nor depth (not addiction or mental illness nor heart ache )
Nor anything in all creation
Can separate us from the love  God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing

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 January 20 2019, Ephesians 5

 

From the time I was born I was surrounded by Methodist believers.  My mother grew up at Ogburn Memorial Methodist  Church in Winston Salem, where my parents were married and where I was baptized.  My father grew up at Concord   Methodist  Church in Davie  County NC . My grandparents Van Allen and Annie Swicegood were both active Methodists. Not long ago  I googled my grandfather, not expecting any response.  After all he has been dead for more than 65  years.  But voila here was his obituary: 

*Appeared in the newspaper on Friday, March 16, 1951

V.A. Swicegood  Dies In Hospital

Van A. Swicegood, 52, of Route 4, Mocksville, died this morning at 8:15 o’clock at Rowan Memorial Hospital after a critical illness of four weeks. He had been in declining health for two years. Mr. Swicegood was a farmer and he had also engaged in textile work. A member of Concord Methodist Church in Davie County, he was a member of the stewards of the church and of the building committee. Until his health failed he was also a member of the Council of Youth Fellowship.

 

On my mother’s side of the family, my grandmother, Pauline Wilson, was active in the Methodist Church.  Sadly my maternal grandfather, Minter Bascom Wilson wasn’t much of a church goer.  On Sunday morning he was always hung over from his Saturday night bender and the only time he attended church was when they carried him in. 

 

It reminds me of the little ditty:

Whenever I go past my church I stop and pay a visit

In hopes that when I am carried in

The Lord won’t say:  “Who is it.?”

 

My great grandparents on my mother’s side, Alexander Lee Turner and Annie Sizemore Turner were Methodists in Greenville SC

 

As a boy I lived across  the street from the Methodist parsonage, so the preacher– not the pastor–but  the preacher was a family friend.  With all these Methodist influences swimming about me, it s no wonder that I was destined to enter the Methodist ministry.  And so I did.  I attended a Methodist college, Pfeiffer, where I’m now a trustee, and a Methodist Seminary, Drew Theological School in Madison, N.J. where I completed my seminary education.  I was ordained a Deacon in the Methodist church in 1965, and was all set to go back to NC to serve some Methodist church there when my Methodist journey was interrupted by an internship in a Presbyterian church in old Greenwich, CT.   The rest, as they say, is history.

 

So today I want to pay tribute to my Methodist roots by holding up the great hymn writer, Charles Wesley, whose brother, John was the founder of Methodism.    

 

As ___________told you, Wesley composed over 6000 hymns, eleven of which are in our hymnal   Here’s his bio, in brief.  

Charles Wesley was the eighteenth child of Susanna Wesley and Samuel Wesley. He was born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England, in 1707. where his father was rector. He was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, where he was ordained.[1] At Oxford, Charles formed a prayer group among his fellow students in 1727; his elder brother, John, joined in 1729, soon becoming its leader and molding it in line with his own convictions. They focused on studying the Bible and living a holy life. Other students mocked them, saying they were the “Holy Club”, “the Methodists”, being methodical and exceptionally detailed in their Bible study, opinions and disciplined lifestyle. Charles followed his brother John into the priesthood of the Anglican Church in 1735.  He had his brother sailed to America that same year to   be missionaries.  It didn’t work out for either of them.  John returned to England where he slowly built up the church which we now know as the Methodists.  Charles spent the rest of his years preaching in fields, in towns,  and villages. AND as the composer of Christian verse.  He was loyal to the Anglican Church to the end, and at the time of his death in 1788, his dying wish was to be buried at the graveyard of t St. Marylebone Anglican Church in London, where he rests troday.  

 

Among his best known hymns are the following

Arise my soul arise” (Lyrics)

“And Can It Be That I Should Gain?” (Lyrics)

“Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” (Lyrics)

“Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies” (Lyrics)

“Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown” (Lyrics)

“Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” (Lyrics)

“Depth of Mercy, Can it Be” (Lyrics)

“Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee” (Lyrics)

“Hail the Day that Sees Him Rise” (Lyrics)

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (Lyrics)

“Jesus, Lover of My Soul” (Lyrics)

“Jesus, The Name High Over All” (Lyrics)

“Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending” (Lyrics)

“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” (Lyrics)

“O for a Heart to Praise My God” (Lyrics)

“O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (Lyrics)

“Rejoice, the Lord is King” (Lyrics)

“Soldiers of Christ, Arise” (Lyrics)

“Sun of Unclouded Righteousness”

“Thou Hidden Source of Calm Repose” (Lyrics)

“Ye Servants of God” (Lyrics)

 

John Wesley, Charles’ older brother, also composed hymns, 191 in all.  The most familiar to us are “A Charge to Keep, I Have.”   “Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending. ‘Give to the Winds Thy Fears.” 

In 1761, John Wesley penned these guidelines for corporate singing for church congregations: 

1. Learn these tunes before you learn any others, afterwards learn as many as you please.

2. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.

 

 

3. Sing All – see that you join the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.

4. Sing Lustily – and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half-dead or half-asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sang the songs of Satan.

5. Sing Modestly – do not bawl so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation that you may not destroy the harmony, but strive to unite your voices together so as to make one melodious sound.

6. Sing in time – whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before and do not stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices and move therewith as exactly as you can and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.

7. Sing spiritually – have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.”

Back to Charles Wesley.    Today we are going to sing four  of his best-known hymns beginning with an Advent Hymn: :”Come Thou Long Expected Jesus:”   Number 82.  And now his Christmas hymn Number 119, Hark the Herald Angels Sing.  

And he has penned our most famous and most beloved Easter hymn “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.”  It reminds me of what a man said to the pastor after the Easter service as they shook hands at the door.   “I don’t like to come to your church, pastor.”

“Why is that?” the pastor inquired

“Because every time I come to your church you sing the same old hymns–”Silent Night” and Jesus Christ is Risen Today” Let’s  sing Hymn 232.

It’s hard to say which of Wesley’s hymns is the “best.”  But I love this one: “Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling,” and the hymn we will sing to end our service, “Rejoice, The Lprd is King,” So let us stand and sing, “Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling,” Number 366.  

Ours is a singing faith.  Way back there in what we call the  Old Testament the Hebrew children sang, and danced and played the flute and harp and timbrel, songs  have become known as our Psalms.  On the last night of his life, Jesus observed the Passover Meal r with his disciples.  And at the end of the meal, they sang a hymn and walked to the Garden of Gethsemane.  In every gathering of worship in  the first century church, hymns were sung.   

We continue that tradition today, a tradition some 3000 years and going strong.  God’s people.  God’s people who sing.  

Categories: Weekly Sermon

The Counter-Intuitive Approach to Happiness

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John 4:1-26; January 13, 2019

    If you are married and get divorced, most of your friends and family will support you.  If you get married a third time, people start whispering behind your back.  If you get married a fourth time, your friends don’t want you within a million miles of their husbands.  And if you get married a fifth time, you get a call from the producers of the Jerry Springer show. 

    The woman at the well in Samaria is working on marriage number five, or is it marriage number six?.  There’s some confusion in the story for Jesus tells her, “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”  Is she just living with this man?

    The woman at the well, like many of the characters in John’s Gospel, is a seeker. In this story, the woman is seeking water at the community well when she meets Jesus of Nazareth.  On a deeper level, she is seeking a happy and fulfilling life.  Proof of that lies in the five husbands.  The first husband didn’t bring her the happiness she wanted, so she moved on to number two, three, four and five.

    Her life is empty, aimless, void of any direction, and she thinks that she can fill up the emptiness and quench her thirst for meaning by finding the right man.  How many young women marry today to confirm their self-worth, to find status in the community, their place in the world, to prevent their friends from saying that dreaded phrase every woman hates to hear: “She’s thirty, and she’s not married.”?

    So the conversation with Jesus is about water, the basic element we all need for life.  But the conversation is loaded with double meanings. Here Jesus talks about water, but he is really talking about Himself, the living water he represents, the only kind of water that can satisfy our parched souls.

    “Sir, show me this water, so that I will never be thirsty again, so that I will never have to coming back and back again to this well to draw water.” 

    She doesn’t get it.  She doesn’t know that living water is available to her.  She lives on one level and one level alone.  She is living here, and Jesus meets her (deeper) here.  She is minding her business, trudging to the well at the heat of noon day, when she meets this puzzling Rabbi.  His words seem inexplicable.  She goes on her way, and there is nothing in this story to suggest that she ever gets the point.  But listen to the last words of this story, the words she carries away from the well:  “Sir, she says, I know that the Messiah is coming, and when he comes he will proclaim all things.  Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”  Did she think about those words, this man, after he departed?  Like so many people Jesus meets, we never know the ending of the story.

    Whatever else this story may mean I believe it represents the counter-intuitive approach to happiness.  The woman is looking for something, more than just water, something that will bring her a fulfilling life. What is it that will meet her need, what is it that will satisfy her heart’s desire?

    Isn’t that why we come to church each Sunday to ask that question: what does it take to lead a happy and contented life?

    A young person just out of college has taken a new job.  In sixth months, the job is disappointing.  She says to me, “I just don’t know what to do with my life.”

    A middle aged man tells me his job bores him.  A mother with grown children feels like she needs a job.  A retired friend finishes five years of projects in one year and wonders where the next challenge lies.

    We cannot live a satisfied life unless there is an underlying sense of purpose to our days.  When life lacks meaning, it turns sour, and each day leaves a bad taste in our mouths.

    As Nietzsche once put it: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”  Nietzsche lost that “why” and took his own life.

     There’s a new book out on happiness by psychologist David Lykken.   Lykken interviewed lots of people, and here’s what he concluded.  Ordinarily we think that external factors lead to happiness: the place we live, the climate, money, marital status, age and beauty.  However, Lykken said, that’s just not true. 

     One of the startling things Lykken learned in his studies on happiness is that people who became paraplegics did not lose their ability to be happy because of an inability to walk.  The same study also revealed that, over time, people who won the lottery were not greatly happier because of their new wealth.

    Lykken calls it a counterintuitive approach to happiness.  In other words, it goes against the grain, goes against what we expect, goes against the usual ways we pursue happiness.

    What do people live for in our time?  There is a vast smorgasbord of things to do tody–more so than at any point in human history.  For the young it’s not only their studies but extra-curriculars, sports, and music and drama and the computer.  As we become adults it boils down to a job, spouse, and home.  And as the years advance, good health becomes increasingly important, a few good friends, and a trip or two each year.  In all of these we invest our ambitions.  In all of these we define our happiness.

    But is it enough?  Do all these externals make us happy in the long run?  If so, why aren’t more people in our country happy in this extraordinary period of peace and prosperity?  Why do good marriages seem so difficult to pull off?  Why so much restlessness in our careers?   Why is the suicide rate higher among the haves than the have-nots?

    We are more like the woman at the well than we think, looking for happiness in the wrong places.  We are thirsty all right, but we do not understand the living water Jesus offers. 

    If you turn to Jesus to find the key to happiness you find almost nothing about career, or spouse, or family, or travel.  Read the sermon on the Mount when you go home today.  “How blessed are they,” he says.  “How blessed.”  “How happy.”

    When Jesus talks about happiness, it is the counter-intuitive approach to happiness.  We think of externals leading to happiness.  He talks about internals.  He talks about the kind of persons we are when we are by ourselves….how we help others…what we are like when we are naked before God…that’s what Jesus talks about.

    That’s hard for us to swallow, let’s face it.  We have sought meaning in this secular and materialistic world from things outside us: possessions, experiences, and achievements.  We seek meaning particular in areas that will bring us recognition, prestige, and power. 

    Peggy Noonan in an op-ed column in the Wall Street Journal observed that people in Washington, D.C. hunger to be influential and well-thought of.  “They reminded me of what the political strategist David Garth said when I asked him if most of the politicians he knew were driven by belief.  ‘They start with a little philosophy and end with a little philosophy,’ he said, ‘All the rest is hunger’.”

    It’s the sort of hunger, I dare say, that will never be satisfied, the kind of thirst that will never be quenched.

    Some years ago John Gardiner of Stanford University concluded a speech with a paragraph on the meaning of life.  The speech was printed widely over the years and 15 years later the speech came back to Gardiner in a dramatic and heart-breaking way.  A man from Colorado wrote Gardiner saying his 20 year old daughter had been killed in an automobile accident a few weeks before, and she was carrying in her wallet this speech by Gardiner.  He said he was grateful to have found this speech, for it indicated to the father what his daughter’s values were.  Here’s how it goes:

    “Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt.  Meaning is something you build into your life.  You build it out of your own past, out of your affections, and loyalties, out of their experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something.  The ingredients are there.  You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life.”

    That’s what our faith is all about.  When we encounter God in Jesus Christ, that is what we find.  Like the woman at the well, it’s not what we are looking for.  It is counter-intuitive.  We find the life we never knew was there, we find a destiny better than the one we had planned, we find the sweetest, most refreshing water in the world, the water of life.

    One of my favorite descriptions of a life well-lived is a eulogy written by William Allen White, the great Kansas editor.  He wrote it upon the passing of an old friend.

    “The other day in Emporia, the longest funeral procession that has formed in ten years followed John Jones three long miles in the hot July sun out to Dry Creek Cemetery…The reason so man people lined up behind the hearse that held the kind of man’s mortality was simply; they loved him.  He devoted his life to people.  In a very simple way without money or power he gave of the gentleness of his heart to all around him.  We are apt to say that money talks, but it speaks broken, poverty-stricken language.  Hearts talk better, clearer, and with a wider intelligence.  This old man with the soft voice and the kindly manners knew the language of the heart and he spoke it where it would give zest and joy.  He worked manfully and with a will in his section of the vineyard, and against odds and discouragements, he won–time and again.  He was infinitely patient and brave.  He held a simple, old-fashioned faith in God and his loving kindness.  When others gave money–which was of their store–he gave prayers and hard work and an inspiring courage.  He helped.  In his sphere he was a power.  And so when he lay down to sleep, hundreds of friends trudged out to bid him good-by with moist eyes and with cramped throats.”

    You want happiness in life?  The real and abiding happiness comes from living a good and a generous life.  It will give you great joy along your way, and it will serve you will until the end. 

Categories: Weekly Sermon

A Feathered Thing That Perches In the Soul 

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January 6 2019 
Romans 5:1-5

    On this first Sunday of a New Year, I want to talk about hope.  The New Year awakens hope in each of us.   It’s a time to look forward to something fresh, something better.  
    Scientists tell us that even rats without hope drown in a jar of water in a little over three minutes but give them a glimmer of light and hope and they will swim for thirty-six hours.  The only problem is that I never did find out how the researchers gave the rats a glimmer of hope.  
    We are creatures of hope. .  You can see how elemental hope is to each of us by looking at how gullible we are about certain things:  Someone will say to us something like this:  
    ●    You’ll have him housebroken in no time.
    ●    The place will be crawling with great looking girls.
    ●    $50 tops, with tip and wine.
    ●    When the gas tanks says empty, there are always a couple of gallons left.
    ●    You can assemble it yourself in 15 minutes.
    ●    Your new kitchen will be ready way before Christmas.
    ●    It will come in under budget.
    ●    They’ll feel wonderful once you break them in.

    The saying that “there’s a sucker born every minute” is a non-theological way of saying that we are born to hope, to envision the best.
    Much of what we think of as “hope” is nothing more than secular optimism.  Biblical hope is radically different from secular optimism.  You know the line that the pessimist looks a glass and sees it half empty.  The optimist looks at the glass and sees it as half full.  Well, now I am told that a consultant looks at that glass and says, “It looks to me as if the glass is twice as big as you need.”
    Optimism is the belief that my dreams will come true, whereas, Biblical hope always has to do with the promise that God is with us, no matter whether my dreams come true or are shattered upon the anvil of life. 
    Paul writes in Romans, chapter 5 that “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured  into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”   Biblical hope never disappoints us because it’s always rooted in God’s promises.    It isn’t rooted in what we what we want.  It isn’t rooted in our dreams or our schemes.  Biblical hope transcends all of that because it is rooted in the immutable, unchangeable will of God.  And God’s spirit, dwelling within us, continually prompts us to remember from whence our hope comes.  
    A dear friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer.  When I went to see her in the hospital, I said, “Susan, I am praying for you to get well.”  And she said something startling to me, “I don’t have to get well.”  I didn’t understand what she meant at the time.  She is something of an iconoclast and is always saying the most intriguing things.  But later, when I talked to her about her illness, I asked her what she meant when she said, “I don’t have to get well.”  She said, “I am the wife of a physician.  I read everything ever printed on my disease.  I knew that 35% of the women with this kind of breast cancer do not survive.  So I knew that I might not survive, but nevertheless, I was within the providence of God, and that superceded everything else.”
    That is what the Bible means by hope.
    Dr. Paul Tournier, a Swiss psychiatrist and devoted Christian insisted that the secret of his life was a special time of quiet he and his wife had each morning when they “listened to God.”  Even after his wife died, he still observed this custom.  He once showed a visitor a large notebook.  It was his quiet book, crammed with narrowly spaced handwriting.  He confided shyly. “I meet God every morning to listen to dreams and visions for the day.”  Small wonder that into his late eighties he continued to live with enthusiasm and a sense of adventure.
    That, too,  is what the Bible means by hope.    When we open our hearts to God’s sprit each day, God infuses us with a sense of enthusiasm and adventure.  
    When we say we that we have hope, we are not saying that everything is going to turn out exactly as we think it should.  But we are saying that each day, no matter what life throws in our face, God will awaken within us new images of what can be, new visions of the possible. 
    I confess as I look back on my life, I see that some of the best things that have happened to me have been the hardest things.    But no matter how low and depressed I would get, and believe me there have been many days in my life when I’ve felt lower than a pregnant ant, I never lost hope that God a will and purpose for my life, some grand design that I could not see.    I have come to see that God’s will is never known in prospect, only in retrospect.  
    I love the poetry of Emily Dickinson.  One of her poems is about hope:  
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.  
    When we trust in God, we are given the hope that even if our plans and dreams must change, there is still goodness and mercy ahead all the days of our lives. When we trust our lives in grateful abandon to our Creator, we are given the hope that nothing in life or death can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
    Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.    And that hope perches in our soul like a tiny, feathered bird, and sings sweetly–in the darkest nights and the brightest dawns–all the days of our lives.  

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Mary’s Story

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Lule 1:26-45
December 16 2018 

    It’s fascinating to me to read Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus.  When we read Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus the story begins with Joseph, and he is quite perplexed by it all.  Mark begins his gospel with Jesus as an adult, sallying forth into Galilee and preaching that the kingdom of God is at hand.  John begins with his towering theological treatise on the incarnation, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God.”
    But Luke is in no hurry to get to the birth of Jesus.  He meanders along, beginning with the old priest named Zechariah, serving in a podunk village…and his wife Elizabeth, who gets pregnant after menopause.  For years Elizabeth has lived a disgraced and empty life in a culture that put a premium on child bearing.  Now joyfully and miraculously pregnant, she closets herself away from her incredulous neighbors to contemplate the goodness of God to her.
    
    Then Luke shifts his story to another woman, living far away in Galilee.  We know nothing about her.  Luke gives us no details  about her parents, her growing up years, what she’s like.  We only hear about Joseph, her fiancé, and he is descended from the royal line of King David.  She’s a virgin, and like old Zechariah, she, too, is visited by an angel.  But while Zechariah dithers in doubt, she accepts the angels word in faith, “Be it done to me according to your word.
    She is pregnant, but not married.  Having this child and staying in her home town under these circumstances represents the risk and terror of ostracism and disgrace.
    In a situation she does not understand, in the midst of a situation over which she has no control, in a situation where she can imagine no future that is not foreboding, she surrenders herself to the will of God.  She does not understand, but she trusts. “Be it done to me according to your word.”
    Mary’s dilemma raises all sorts of questions for us.  Where was her mother and father when she needed them?  What about her sisters, her brothers?  Shy did she have to travel to far-off Judea to get support and encouragement from her cousin, Elizabeth.  Did she leave her home-town out of the shame of an unwanted pregnancy, not wanting to face the knowing stares of a tight-knit community?   As he so often does, Luke tells us none of this, and leaves the details to our imagination.
    But what Luke does hand to us is these two women, two powerless nobodies, who suddenly are thrust front and center of God’s plan for the redemption of the world.  All the men are absent or silent.  Herod is away at his palace.  Speechless Zechariah is writing notes.  Joseph is dithering about as to whether he should get involved.  It’s these two women, cousins, both pregnant, who understand and believe what God is doing.  One is old and has no children.  The other is young and has not husband.  But both are pregnant.  And God is at work.  
    When you think of these two women, you can’t help but think of the long line of women in the Bible who are linked together and bless each other.  The Hebrew midwives conspire against the Pharaoh.  Miriam and Jochabed, conspire with the Egyptian princess to rear little Moses.  There’s Ruth and Naomi, Mary and Martha, Susannah and Joanna, Jesus’ wealthy female supporters, Euodia and Syntyche. Lois and Eunice.
    Mother-daughter, grandmother-granddaughter, cousins, friends, all share the strengths of vulnerabilities of being women, knowing often without words the lives and emotions of the other.  
    I envy the friendship which women share.  Men have a harder time at it.  We are so competitive with one another.  Men could take lessons from the deep and sustaining friendships which are so prevalent in Biblical society and in our society.
    But Luke’s main point here isn’t female solidarity, but rather to hear these two women proclaim the mystery of faith.  Luke’s main concern in telling this story is theological rather than personal.  First, he holds up the blessedness of Mary.   In her womb grows the miracle of the incarnation, the coming of God to join the human race.
    Our Roman Catholic friends raise her status by naming her sinless, immaculate, and perpetually a virgin.  I think they miss the point.  It’s Mary’s faith, her trust in God, that makes her blessed.  Elizabeth reiterates this truth when she says, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.  Mary believes in the promises of God, promises that will lead her to sorrow, while at the same time they lead to the salvation to the world.  
    The second theological truth Elizabeth preaches to us is about the fruit of Mary’s womb, the son to be born.  “Why has this happened to me that the mother of my Lord comes to me.”  The mother of my Lord.  In this simple statement Elizabeth announces the astounding truth about the child Mary bears.  He is the Lord.  Adoni.  The Hebrew word for God himself.  He is to be God incarnate.  And Mary is his mother.
    Psychologist Thomas Holmes has developed a stress scale,
based on an assigned numerical value of stress-producing
experiences.  These experiences usually involves changes–the
loss of a job, moving to a new community, a new relationship,
CHRISTMAS!   Yes, Dr. Holmes has computed that simply living
through the stress of Christmas earns you 14 points on the stress
scale.
     If you look at the Virgin Mary’s situation, you can see that
she earns a lot of points on the stress scale.  
          PREGNANCY, for instance, earns 40 points.
          AN UNWANTED PREGNANCY, 20 MORE.
          A CHANGE IN LIVING CONDITIONS–25.  (Mary stayed with
          her cousin Elizabeth for three months.)
          MARRIAGE TO JOSEPH–50 POINTS.
          A CHANGE IN FINANCIAL STATUS–38 POINTS.
          
          Surely there must have been words between them when she
          discovered that he had not made reservations at the
          inn–35 POINTS FOR AN ARGUMENT WITH YOUR SPOUSE.
          
          AND THEN THE BIRTH
          –39 POINTS; 16 FOR A CHANGE IN SLEEPING HABITS
          — 15 FOR A CHANGE IN EATING HABITS.  
          NOT TO MENTION ALL THOSE UNINVITED GUESTS; SHEPHERDS,
          ANGLES COMING AND GOING AND THREE KINGS FROM THE EAST.
          
Dr. Holmes says that people get sick at 200 points.  I calculate
that Mary’s ordeal earned her a whopping 424 “stressed out”
points.
     Well to ease Mary’s stress, the angel Gabriel has confided in her this eye-popping news:   Despite her age and barrenness, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant.  The mystery of Advent grows in ever widening circles, revealing that God’s surprising
work can take place–
     in age or youth, 
     in the temple or in odd places like Nazareth, 
     in barrenness or virginity.  

     As we move toward the birth of Jesus one week from today, I
hope we can linger for a little while in that little hut in the
Judean hill country with Elizabeth and Zechariah and Mary, if
only to learn how God comes to us in the mostunlikely places, at
the times we least expect it.  
     The big word we use at Advent is waiting.  We talk a lot
about waiting for God to come into the world and into our lives. 
But we’ve got it all wrong.  The big word is waiting, but it’s
not our waiting that Advent is all about.  Instead, God is
waiting for us, waiting for us to believe, to trust, to open our
eyes to the unexpected.  
     The good news of Christmas is that God doesn’t stand at a
distance, waiting for us to come to Him.  Instead, in Jesus
Christ he has come all the way to us.  

Categories: Weekly Sermon

The Hate Stops Here

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Luke 6   November 11 2018 
    
    There is an Indian tribe in Ecuador called the Jivaro tribe.  Each night when the children are put to bed, the parents linger by their children’s place of rest and whisper in their ear the names of all the people they must hate when they grow older.  It is their tribal way of keeping the feuds and enmities alive from generation to generation.
I thought about this story as I reflected upon  the killings at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, 11 dead.  It also brought to mind the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995, leaving 168 dead, the shootings at the AME church in Charleston, 9 dead, shootings at gay nightclub in Orlando in 2016.  49 dead. 
    Inflammatory speech, whether uttered by the President or posted on social media, contributes to the radioactivity of hatred.  Inflammatory speech stokes anger, fear, and resentment.  Inflammatory speech divides the world into camps of us and them.
    As I stood in the Lincoln Memorial Friday a week ago and read Lincoln’s words from the II Inaugural Address, “With malice toward none, with charity toward all, let us bind up our nation’s wounds, “ I realized how far we have fallen.  
    Pastor Eric Manning of the Emmanuel African American Episcopal  church in Charleston was invited by Rabbi Jeffry Myers of the Tree of Life Jewish Synagogue to speak at the memorial service of one of the victims.  The two clergy have much in common.  They are the spiritual leaders of groups that have been harassed and persecuted down through the ages.   “This incident” Rabbi Myers said, “like that at Emanuel, was not an attack on a particular group. It was an attack on America because it challenges our right to assemble and worship our God in the way we want. It has continued a downward spiral of hate, one that’s prevalent in all corners of the United States.”
    I have lifted up a scripture for our reflections today on hate speech and hate crimes in America.  It is Jesus’s words from Luke chapter 6: “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.  The love Jesus speaks of here  is not romantic love, that gushy feeling that sweeps over us when we fall  head over heels.   In fact this love he speaks of  isn’t a feeling at all.  It is an attitude which leads to an action.   There is a good chance that we will never be able to change the heart of our enemies but we do have control over our hearts toward them.  If we  treat someone lovingly, even if we  feel no real compassion for them, even if we  feel contempt toward  them, we are practicing kindness, and ultimately we will begin to feel kindness. The part of the equation that is most likely to change is us,  not our enemies.   The more that we treat those people in our lives who do not deserve compassion with compassion, the more our hearts  will change towards them.
    An old man was talking to a friend and said, “I’m so lucky.  I don’t have an enemy in the world.”  The friend said, “That’s amazing.”  
    “Yep,” the old man said, “I’ve outlived them all.”
    “Imagine the vanity,” Augustine said, “of thinking your enmity hurts your enemy more than it does you.”  Hatred does nothing to the person that we hate. It only darkens our soul. A. W. Tozer says in The Pursuit of God, “Hate eats on the soul. To get free of hatred is like being healed of cancer.” We experience so much freedom when we can set our hate aside and love people the way that Jesus loved them and see them as image bearers of God.
    Leave it to Charlie Brown to express a theological and psychological truth.  Charlie Brown is lying in his bed, saying to a sleeping Snoopy at his side, “Sometimes I lie awake at night and I ask,’Where have I gone wrong?’  Then a voice says to me, ‘This is going to take more than one night’.”
    The beginning of wisdom is knowing that each of us has gone wrong.  The beginning of wisdom is acknowledging that our own divided hearts contributes to the division and the heart-ache of the world.        No matter how many times I stand in the pulpit, I can never point you enough to Jesus Christ and his cross.  In his refusal to retaliate against those who harmed him, in his indefatigable good will toward  his enemies, Jesus Christ made it possible for us to be reconciled to God and to one another.  And we are in the church not because we have earned our way here.  We are here because Christ reached out for us, paid a price for us, won us back to God, and broke down the walls separating us from God and one another.
    The hurt and pain of the world begins in our own divided hearts.  And it spreads.  Oh, how it spreads from person to person, neighborhood to neighborhood, country to country. But thank God, there is an antidote.
    There is a hopeful sign, a sign that hangs upon the cross, a sign which reads, “The hurt and the hate stop here.”  
    Here are ten affirmations emailed to me this week from my friend, Gae Chalker, who is an Episcopal priest in Hawaii.  She preached here a couple of time last year.  
 1.     I will only use thoughtful, truthful speech and refrain from any words that are a personal attack on another person.
2.     I will seek to understand the concerns of those who are on the “other side of the aisle” and the people they represent.
3.     I will not be afraid to speak up and express my thoughts if I believe something is not ethical.
4.     I will be mindful of the weakest or least powerful in our country – the poor, the sick, the elderly, the marginalized, the alien and all those oppressed by injustice.
5.     I will work to seek non-violent ways of resolving conflicts in our country and in our world.    
6.     I will work to provide opportunities for all Americans to receive quality education, health care, and employment that provides a living wage.
7.     I will learn about how we humans are impacting all of creation and my decisions will consider the future of our environment.
Most important are the following three affirmations:
8.     I will practice every day to be humble and let go of my pride.
9.     I will remind myself that all human beings are God’s children, just like me.
10.  I will pray every day for God’s guidance.
    As I read through Gae’s  list of affirmations, I thought they are not just for the leaders of our country but for all of us.  Gandi said it and it is so true: “ We must be the change we want to see in the world.”

Categories: Weekly Sermon

The Mystery of Growth

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Matthew 6:19-34: August 26 2018

“Consider the lilies…how they grow,” Jesus said.    There are many wondrous mysteries in the world, none more intriguing than the marvelous mystery of growth, that silent, invisible, universal process occurring through eons of time in forest and field, in rivers and seas.  Without that, our planet would be like Mars, red dust and rocks here and there dotting the barren landscape.

Growth–we’re so accustomed to it that we don’t think about it much.  Maybe the scientists in the laboratories do, but for the most part we don’t.  It is so much part of life that we never stop to ponder its intriguing mystery.

Have you ever considered the lilies–how they grow…how anything grows?  A seed sprouts up and becomes a rose,  an infinitesimally small egg becomes a child, then a man, then a profound thinker who can reflect on life’s mysteries.

Here’s how one man who has a way with words considers the mysteries and miracles of this process of growth:

“I remember the red gullies, the broom straw, the fields of corn stubble in the Mecklenburg November, and in the spring, the daffodils that still bloom by the hundreds under a certain Orange County oak.”

“I remember the bobolinks and buntings, and mockingbirds mocking, loblolly pines and live oaks hung with moss, the taste of scuppernongs from the vines my father planted.

“ I remember making a slingshot from the fork of a persimmon tree and hunting rabbits with it along the creek bed.  Those rabbits were as safe as if they’d been in their mother’s arms.  I never hit a one.”

That man describing nature’s bounteous miracle, of course, is Charles Kurault, and I fancy that he would like the subject we are considering today.

The mystery of growth is so profound that we have no language to describe it.  The biologists, of course, are trying.  They look at cells under the microscope and describe their function.  They map the human genome.  They can tell us about the basic building blocks of life, how we human beings share the same basic stuff of the humble protozoa, but they can’t answer the question, “How does it grow?  Why does it grow?  What gives it that “umpff” to grow?”  Some people say, “Mother Nature made it all happen. “ And maybe, without knowing it, they are giving a theological answer, for there is a mother soil in which all living things are nourished.  Some call it “Mother Nature.”  Others call it “God.”

And this is the reason the Sermon on the Mount has a depth that is not readily apparent.  It isn’t just a series of wise sayings about life, but rather a revelation telling us about the essential nature of life.  Underlying every utterance of Jesus is his fundamental conviction that everything that lives is rooted deeply in the providence of God, is enveloped by it, enfolded it, dependent upon it, and apart from it nothing can exist.

So in these few fragmentary sayings about birds and grass and lilies of the field, there’s a  profound insight about mystery of growth.

I.

It’s evident in the area of physical growth.  In our hallway we have a series of pencil marks.  We measure our grand children each time they come out.  My wife said to our oldest grandson this year, “My goodness, Liam, look how much you’ve grown in a year.”

None of us can force growth.  It’s out of our hands.  Of course, that principle does not apply to the growth of our waistlines.

Look at the plant world.  “Consider the lilies, how they grow…”  Consider it.  Drop a seed into the soil, and you see how instantly it is surrounded and enveloped in a providential process involving the total universe.  Ninety three million miles away the sun beams down, the earth turns, the seasons come, the tides move in an out with the pull of the moon, the warm air rises from the oceans in an elaborate air-conditioning system of condensation and evaporation; the lightning flash releases the nourishing nitrogen, drops it to earth in the rainstorm, and our tiny seed is nourished.  Each little flower that opens reminds us of the elemental forces of nature always silently at work.

II.

Jesus might have said, “Consider the children, how they grow” This is equally a mystery.  How does a boy go about growing up?  It’s the quietest thing you ever saw.  He takes no thought of it.  He has his mind on other things, baseball games, and capturing lightning bugs and swimming at the lake. And all the while something is happening to him.  His sleeves get too shot, his pants don’t fit anymore.  And his grandma looks at him and says, “Land sakes, you are growing like a weed.”  And he stands there looking a little sheepish.  He doesn’t know why he’s growing; he just is.  He hasn’t intended it or planned it.

Like the lilies of the field you and I are enveloped in a providential arrangement that takes care of our growth. Doctors don’t understand it; they can tell you how it may be stunted or stimulated, but the process itself is beyond their knowing–a secret that nature keeps all to herself.

III.

Move up the ladder to the rung of mental growth, the kind of growing that is more interesting than adding inches to our stature.  What is it that propels our minds to grow, to cause us want to explore music, and books, and technology?  We don’t sit down one day and say, “I want to be smarter.”  No, we see something that interests us, and we tackle it.  We want to master it.

How do our minds grow?  A lot like the lilies.  We can’t grow intellectually by trying to grow.  Instead, we walk down some trail of fascinating thought.  We climb the stairway of wonder.  We set our minds to tackle a task too big for them to grasp, and our minds stretch and expand.  Like Columbus, we go out seeking a continent and a lot of other continents rise up in our paths.

Just think for a moment how our minds have been expanded in our life-time in the area of space travel.  We take it as common-place that people go to the moon or circle the earth in a space capsule.  We land a rover  on Mars that can send back photos with incredible precision.  I asked a friend the other day if he ever thought we would land human beings on Mars, and he began to calculate, “Let’s see, it would take two years out, and two years back, and enough fuel for the round trip.”  To be sure, the astro-physicists are thinking about it, computing its requirements.  So our minds are stretched as we follow new knowledge, new vistas, new planets to explore.  And we know that God has many things yet to reveal to the inquisitive mind of seeking persons.

IV.

When we arrive at the highest and holiest place of the human spirit, the principle we have been talking about still holds true.  How do we grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ?  How do we add new dimensions to our moral and spiritual nature.  I need not remind you that this has become the pressing question of our age–spiritual maturity.  Where do we find people wise enough in  mind, big enough in soul, perceptive enough in vision to handle the mighty problems of our dangerous world.  There aren’t many questions as important as that.

Like all other growth, spiritual growth can’t be forced.  It comes as a by-product, something that happens to us as we reach for something else.  And this is the secret of worship, why we Christians believe so stubbornly in worship when so many people have forgotten the worth of it.  For worship is the soul of a human being reaching up for the greatness of God.

Alfred North Whitehead, that great process philosopher, was fond of saying that moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness.  And that’s what worship is–the habitual vision of greatness, the time-exposure of the human soul to the highest that we know.  We tend inevitably to grow into the likeness of that to which we give our devotion.

When we visited the Sistine Chapel the visitors craned their necks to look upward at Michelangelos frescoes.    Someone visiting the gallery said he didn’t know what was more impressive, to look at the paintings or watch the crowd as they gazed at it.  Invariably, he said, everyone who stood in the Sistine Chapel o began to straighten up, to put back their shoulder, and stand a little taller, the lifting power of beauty.

I think this is what the Bible is about from beginning to end…little people looking up, people like you and me, who one day, like Isaiah in the temple saw the Lord high and lifted up (Isaiah 6:1).  And in seeing the greatness of God, Isaiah became greater himself.

Well, this is the glory of the gospel.  In a time when everything around is causing us to look down, the Christian faith is asking us to look up. To give our devotion to something greater than our little lives.  And the Glory of Christ is that he puts no ceiling on human life. He knows the potential greatness of our soul.  He brings us, one by one, face to face with God.  And when that happens, we will stand tall…and rise high…and grow into the kind of people we are meant to be.

Categories: Weekly Sermon