Two Stories – December 27, 2015

Two Stories

Isaiah 9:2-7 Luke 2:1-20


We have been blessed to once again hear the stories of prophecy and of the birth of a babe who was God in the flesh…our savior…our path to eternal life. To close out our Christmas season of celebration I want to share two more brief stories…perhaps you’ve heard them already. Stories that answer the questions…why…and what can we expect. The first story came to us from Paul Harvey. The man to whom I’m going to introduce you was not a scrooge, he was a kind decent, mostly good man. Generous to his family, upright in his dealings with other men. But he just didn’t believe all that incarnation stuff which the churches proclaim at Christmas Time. It just didn’t make sense and he was too honest to pretend otherwise. He just couldn’t swallow the Jesus Story, about God coming to Earth as a man. “I’m truly sorry to distress you,” he told his wife, “but I’m not going with you to church this Christmas Eve.” He said he’d feel like a hypocrite. That he’d much rather just stay at home, but that he would wait up for them. And so he stayed and they went to the midnight service. Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier and then went back to his fireside chair and began to read his newspaper. Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound…Then another, and then another. Sort of a thump or a thud…At first he thought someone must be throwing snowballs against his living room window. But when he went to the front door to investigate he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They’d been caught in the storm and, in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his large landscape window. Well, he couldn’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter, if he could direct the birds to it. Quickly he put on a coat, galoshes, tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light, but the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them in. So he hurried back to the house, fetched bread crumbs, sprinkled them on the snow, making a trail to the yellow-lighted wide open doorway of the stable. But to his dismay, the birds ignored the bread crumbs, and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow. He tried catching them…He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them waving his arms…Instead, they scattered in every direction, except into the warm, lighted barn. And then, he realized that they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could think of some way to let them know that they can trust me…That I am not trying to hurt them, but to help them. But how? Because any move he made tended to frighten them, confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed because they feared him. “If only I could be a bird,” he thought to himself, “and mingle with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be afraid. Then I could show them the way to the safe, warm…to the safe warm barn. But I would have to be one of them so they could see, and hear and understand.” At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to the bells – – listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. And he sank to his knees in the snow. The second story was written by Mary Stevenson…in 1936…to share her experiences and thoughts on what we can expect from this savior. I first heard it at a performance of the Singing Christmas tree my first Christmas in Greenville. It brought tears to my eyes and warmth to my heart. It greatly helped push me forward on my Christian journey. Here’s her story: One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints…other times there was one set of footprints. This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish…sorrow…or defeat…I could see only one set of footprints. So I said to the Lord, “You promised me Lord, That if I followed you, You would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I need you most, you have not been there for me.! The Lord replied, “The times when you have seen only one set of footprints is when I carried you.” Joy to the world. The Lord has come…has come to lead…to save…and to be with…you and me…at this time of joy…at times of hurt and pain. Truly there is joy to world…joy to you and me. As we put away the decorations and gifts…as friends and family depart from our annual reunions…let us not put away this good news nor depart from the babe born to lead and to save us. Instead let us be among those who cherish and share the good news daily…who…like Jesus… reach out to those seeking shelter from the storms of life…to those struggling as they walk through the sands of life… To those in our families…those in our church…and to our neighbors…around the corner and around the world.

Set Out – December 20, 2015

“Set Out”

Micah 5:2-9 Luke 1:39-45


You’ve all seen them…signs outside churches that have large changeable letters. Sometimes they tell of a schedule of church events…including special holiday activities. Others contain a verse from the Bible or advice for living. Often they poke fun at the news or newsmakers. Occasionally they provide a new perspective. I saw a photo of one this week that did all of those things…spoke to a special holiday activity…contained advice for living…poked fun at some newsmakers and provided a new perspective. The sign contained these words…”Christmas – the story of a Middle Eastern family seeking refuge.” Like Matthew the sign may have played a little loose with the important point…but hear the message of that sign once again…”Christmas – the story of a Middle Eastern family seeking refuge.” In his zeal to prove that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah the gospel writer Matthew took some liberties with the prophecies that are in the Old Testament. Today’s selection from Micah shows one of those liberties. The selection from Micah does…however…give us great hope and challenge. Matthew used the phrase from Micah…”one who is to rule in Israel”…to reference the infant Jesus Christ in chapter two of Matthew’s gospel. There is a pretty good argument to support that was not what the prophet intended. Micah’s prophecy was given just before the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in 701 B. C. Israel had strong rulers that ultimately broke that siege long before Jesus was born. Micah was speaking to a frightened… confused…and nearly broken nation. What he was trying to do was give them hope and courage. The challenge that Micah faced was not greatly different from the world in which we live today. Today’s believers must be in the forefront of guiding their communities toward eliminating the fear and injustices that so seriously affect the social… economic…and political life of our nation and the world. That kind of biblical leadership starts with a significant change in each person’s desires and actions. Then…and only then…it spreads to every fiber of every relationship we have in our homes…our churches…our work…and our play. Loving mercy…acting justly…and walking courageously and closely with God…are not just possible options that a person might want to consider…they are the heart and soul of pleasing God and truly serving His people. In Micah’s day there were leaders who had the trappings of religious people….they looked and acted religious…they even claimed to trust God…but their unjust behavior showed their true character. And…when it came to crunch time…when things were looking like they would change radically…they were not true community or national leaders whose trust was in God. Their first concern was themselves. Their over-riding question was “What’s in it for me?” One of the commentators on Micah…Gary V. Smith…a professor of Old Testament at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary…wrote this…”In times of great social and economic change…special responsibility is placed on governments to help the weak. A complicating factor is the added pressure war places on the wealthy…who now struggle to maintain their lifestyles.” Micah complained about the violence and deceitfulness of the wealthy and the use of improper scales by businessmen cheating their clients. Politicians, judges and the powerful in society were shedding innocent blood, taking bribes, and scheming to take advantage of others. Social distrust grew so bad that one had to be careful what one said to a friend and even to a spouse or children. This was not a pleasant time to live in Judah…and it was especially difficult to be a prophet of God. How similar is our life today? Micah knew that if he was going to do what God wanted…he had to speak the truth in love. He had to have courage to reach his goal of causing people to recognize their own sinfulness. Only then would he be able to lead them to the point where they would allow God to transform their lives. How well do we recognize that today? How well do we …speak the truth in love? It’s always easy to see the evil and injustice in the behavior of others. Many people can tell of a situation in which they were personally cheated or unfairly treated…or they can tell stories about injustices they have heard on TV or from friends. It is not hard to get people to agree that the injustices against them are wrong. They personally feel the sting of being unfairly treated. It is much more difficult to get people interested in the broader issue of God’s view of the proper relationships between the rich and powerful and the poor and powerless. This is partly because most people compare themselves to others around them and do not feel as if they are rich or powerful. Also, some feel that a good portion of the poor are lazy and prefer to just collect money from the government. In spite of prejudice or misunderstanding…people do need to think about the broad roles government should play in regulating fair economic activity, caring for the poor, and protecting the rights of all people. But…these are not issues to be left to the political and social leaders of the community, state and nation. We who call ourselves Christians should be concerned and active about the issues of social justice that are part of public policy. These issues are not some impersonal problem that some unnamed persons in government should correct. These policies affect people’s welfare and should be the interest of every person…not just those in the political class…the politicians…commentators… lobbyists and special interest groups. For we Christians this should be doubly important. The Bible repeatedly places God on the side of the poor and against the wealthy and powerful. God fought against the Egyptians and delivered his people from oppression in Egypt. He destroyed his own people who crushed the heads of the poor into the ground. He promised to punish those who turned away the needy and robbed the poor of what little they had. Proverbs 14:31 claims that “he who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God. God was particularly concerned about the disadvantaged widows…orphans and strangers…all of whom can be easily cheated and oppressed. Jesus showed his concern for the poor by encouraging people to invite not just their friends for dinner, but to invite the lame, blind and poor as well. Our concern should not be solely the arrangement of order and quiet in our society. We should also be concerned about those who twist and pervert even the finest system of ensuring just relationships among people. The Bible does not reject a system that allows for the ownership of property or claim that the wealthy are an evil consequence of a certain economic system. Fair…respectful and appropriate measures are available in most societies to deal with justice issues…but all too often individuals willfully misuse, ignore or reject these social mechanisms to further their own selfish interests. In this process the natural human rights of others are trampled underfoot and oppression takes place. The Bible does give some broad principles of relationships that may help some of our thinking. Concerning economic factors there are two fundamental principles that Christians should remember. First, God is the real owner of the land, all property and possessions, not the earthly person using what God truly owns. These are gifts from God to us…not earned rewards or rights that we deserve and can control in any way we wish. It is God who gives people the ability to earn wealth. Secondly, in Bible times God was much involved in putting limits on economic activity and gave regulations as guidelines for ordering the social and economic relationships between people. Those guidelines still apply today…a time when wealth and income inequality are at their greatest in modern history. Jesus Christ and John Wesley took their ministries to those whom God favored in the social…economic and political systems of their day. Are we taking our ministry to the same people? It’s quite easy to sit at home and complain, ignore or claim no ability to influence the outcome. As people God has set apart it is time for us to set out to be in social justice ministry as did John Wesley…the prophet Micah…and the babe whose birth we celebrate? Returning to the message on the church sign…I leave you with this question. In this time of celebration of God’s gift to us…to whom and how will each of us provide needed refuge…refuge from loneliness…refuge from hunger…refuge from anger…refuge from hurt…refuge from injustice… refuge from the ravages of war…refuge that provides the love… warmth…kindness…joy and hospitality that God provided us with the gift of a Savior. Let us set out today…to make Christmas the story of providing refuge.

Proclaim the Good News – December 13, 2015

“Proclaim the Good News”

Zephaniah 3:14-20 Luke 3:7-18


A story in yesterday’s Greenville News gave a summary of the eleven mass shootings in South Carolina this year. By some counts there has been at least one mass shooting somewhere in the U. S. for every day of this year. As a society we used to be bewildered and dumfounded when a tragedy of this kind occurred. While some people seem to feel it’s the new normal most of us are hurt and angry. We shed tears with tough people like the President and journalists covering the story and with those not-so-tough who were directly affected by their personal immediate and untimely loss. We have said prayers for those impacted. We have said prayers for the first responders. Some have even said prayers for forgiveness of the person or persons responsible. Wherever people gather to socialize and converse…the corner coffee spot…or the international coffee shop known as Facebook…there are those with instantaneous answers…re-opening old debates. Debates about gun control…debates about society’s care for those with mental challenges…debates about individual responsibility…debates about the level and type of security to be offered in public places…debates about terrorism and immigration. They are old debates…and all sides of each debate have been reinvigorated to resume their debates more loudly… more publicly…more emotionally…and more shrilly. Most would say the victims were innocent of wrongdoing…and they would probably be correct in many cases. The great theological debate about why bad things happen to good people is one that has resumed. The reality is that we don’t know the answer…and probably never will…at least as long as we walk this earth. The scripture was chosen for today’s sermon 21 years ago…when a collaboration of Christian scholars created what is called the Revised Common Lectionary. They had not heard of Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Massachusetts…nor Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina…nor the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California. They had no way of knowing the tragedies that would occur in those places. What they did know…however…was the comfort and teaching in the Bible…God’s Word for us. Mention of the lectionary causes me to pause to answer a question I commonly hear. That question is “How do you put together a sermon?” The method is one that I learned at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, one of the finest United Methodist seminaries in the world. The process begins with the lectionary. The lectionary is a three year plan that recommends five or six Bible passages around a theme for each Sunday and Christian holy day of the year. When devised it was created around the belief that pastors would use two or three passages each worship service and that by following the lectionary a church could be taken through the most important parts of the Bible over a period of six years. The United Methodist Church has added to the lectionary recommended music selections to match the theme of the day. With that said, the lectionary is the first step in sermon preparation. A choice is made from the scripture passages recommended for the worship service. Almost every time a passage from the New Testament containing teachings from Jesus is included. His most common topics for teaching were the Kingdom of God, what it is, and what we must do to get there and to make it happen on earth. Second was money or treasure…how to get it and what to do with it. Then…two to five commentaries and John Wesley’s notes on each scripture passage chosen are studied and understood. You can find the commentaries and Wesley’s Notes at any Christian book store or on the internet. Throughout the week before the worship service…observations of people and conversations with people take place. You don’t know where a contemporary story supporting the passage will originate. Add to that daily reading of a half dozen newspapers and several news magazines. All of those inputs come together to create the sermon that you hear on Sunday. I hope that helps answer the question that some have asked. I’ll be glad to elaborate further with anyone who has added interest. Back to today’s messages from Zephaniah…one of the least known prophets…and from Luke…one of the best loved Gospel writers. Though they are old they should give us hope and guidance as we ponder and debate solutions. Zephaniah’s short book…only three chapters…begins miserably…with God’s people about to be sent into oppressive exile…but ends with today’s passage…a declaration to sing with joy and praise. This part of the song begins with future encouragement…for people who will witness God’s presence and his might to save them. The song ends with the community being taken into the life of God—into his delight, love and rejoicing. People proclaiming God’s word! People experiencing God’s kingdom. In the end God speaks directly to the remnant that trusts in him…those that trust in him and are not bewildered and dragged into a state of paralysis by the news of the day. God promises several actions. God will deal with all who oppress and who hurt people. We don’t know specifically what God will do or when He will do it. We can trust that God will provide appropriate justice. More importantly…we can be assured that those who are led by God will work on this earth to find ways to comfort those who have been injured…those who hurt. We can also be assured that those who are led by God will work to find just and humane ways to prevent a recurrence. God promised He would gather his people. One of the greatest early stories to come out of tragedies like those in Newtown…Charleston and San Bernardino…showed how the community members… through their places of worship… Christians…Jews…and Muslims… gathered in God’s name…to offer their support. Yes…they all hurt…but together…with God’s support…they were strong. Together…in community…with God’s support we can all be stronger. We can all proclaim God’s word and build his kingdom. God promised that He would restore their fortunes. The treasure that was the lives of the children and adults lost in these shootings will not be restored on earth. However…the treasure that is the lives of those left behind…with reliance on God and following the lead of the Holy Spirit…will be restored on earth. And…we have faith that the love that was shared on earth will be restored when all are reunited in Christ’s mansion…in God’s kingdom. The short version of Zephaniah’s prophecy is that God is with his people. God is with his people. Isn’t that the message of the season we celebrate? Matthew wrote, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him ‘Immanuel” which means ‘God with us” (1:23) God has drawn nearer to humanity in the incarnation… life…and death of Jesus. The reality of this nearness is perpetuated in his resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The constant Biblical theme of God’s nearness is what begins the letter to the Hebrews. John’s gospel begins with a similar theme. Paul’s appeal to the Gentile Ephesians tells us that the vision has been fulfilled. (Eph 2:12-13) 12 In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. 13 But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ. (Eph. 2:12-13 NLT) As we pray…as we mourn…as we ask questions that seem to have no answers…as we lean on each other…as we reach out to those who have been hurt…let us remember that despite the heinous nature of these tragedies…as it has been through the years…God is with us…God is with us. Let us…among ourselves…and in reaching out to others proclaim with word and deed the Good News…of God’s kingdom. God is with us. God is with us.

Blessed Are You and the Saints – December 6, 2015

“Blessed Are You and the Saints”

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18 Luke 6:20-31


Not long ago….I was blessed to walk with a dozen friends through the Ashmore Heritage Preserve not far from here. We spent five hours walking up and down the hills that God had created and maintained over the years. These hills had been untouched by humans except for the blazing of some rudimentary walking trails. The scenery was beautiful. At this time of year we begin to see advertising for man-made beauty…also…in the form of Christmas at Biltmore. It’s the largest mansion in America. It’s very ornate. Everything is beautiful…perhaps you’d even call it stunning. Beautifully decorated and lighted Christmas trees that are 20 feet tall reach to the ceilings of the great rooms. Candlelit garlands are all around. Poinsettias of every conceivable color are everywhere. There’s a fire in every fireplace. It is truly a magnificent place. Perhaps you’ve never seen a dwelling place more magnificent or more welcoming. It’s quite possible that you haven’t seen…and that you may not see anything more magnificent… as long as you walk this earth. However…the people…whose lives we celebrate today… have…and will forever see such a place…a place they now call home. Hear once again…the words we heard at least once in the past two years…from the Gospel of John…words spoken by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…who holds the keys to that more magnificent mansion. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And, if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, So that where I am, there you may be also.” Christ has prepared a place for us. Christ has opened God’s house to…Tim Knight…Margaret Turner…Grady Callahan…Richard Mulder…Betty Bradley…Doris Gilreath…J. T. Styles…and Lisa Gossett. How do I know this? I know this in a personal way. My dad was the only parent in my life during my formative years…between the ages of 8 and 14. At best we had a rocky relationship. His message to me about God was pretty simple. God would punish me harshly if I did wrong…and God was the first word of a two-word curse. I didn’t accept his idea of God…or anyone’s idea of God…for many years. I moved out of his small apartment the day after I graduated from high school. For years after that we exchanged a Christmas card and birthday cards….signed but with no other message. That was the extent of our relationship. I didn’t think him an evil man…but I surely judged him as someone God would not welcome into his house. In my first year of ministry I received the call from my sister in New York. Our father was dying of lung cancer and the doctors thought he didn’t have much time left. As I made the long drive to Syracuse I wondered what I would say. After driving for about four hours I decided my task was to bring this man…my father…to God. I thought I knew all the right stuff because I had just a few months earlier finished the training to become a local pastor in the United Methodist Church. I decided I would save him before it was too late. Upon my arrival in Syracuse I went straight to a book store and bought an easy to understand version of the Bible. You see…my dad only completed eighth grade. I had all the education and just knew I had all of the answers he would need. When I walked into his room at the care center…we said hello…shook hands…and then he said, “I understand you’re a minister now.” I said, “Yes.” Then without hesitation…he asked me to join him in the Prayer of Saint Francis. Yep…you guessed it…I hadn’t considered this request in all of my highly educated thinking about how to save him. I told him I was aware of the prayer…but hadn’t memorized it…and started to open my Bible to find it. He said…”You won’t find it there.” He then said, “Let’s pray.” He led us in the prayer. It was then I realized that even though I may have judged him as lost…as a person who had done wrong things…and not done all of the right things…somehow he had found Jesus…and the Holy Spirit had found him. I realized then that my father had been invited into God’s house. I realized also that even the best among us see only a small piece of others while they are with us. I never had the opportunity to interact with those members of the Jackson Grove United Methodist Church family we recognize today. I can’t and won’t attempt to judge them against my standards or against what I perceive to be God’s standards. Each probably had some imperfections. But…I’ve learned enough about each to know they also had and shared love for others…for Jesus Christ…and for his church…and their church family. Think for a minute about the world they have left behind. Is that love for Christ and all in God’s creation prevalent…in everyone’s heart and mind? Has the pursuit of wealth for its own sake…or as a way to keep score gone away? How about the drive for power over others? Is that gone away? Is there love in every word and action of every person? Are we all the best possible stewards of God’s creation? One needs only to look at the rancor of the current political campaigns and governing process and the stories of abuse, greed, anger and violence in today’s news to find the answer. The Jews despised the Romans because they oppressed God’s people…but Jesus told the people to love these enemies who provoked and angered them. Such words turned many away from Christ. But, Jesus wasn’t talking about having affection for enemies. He was talking about an act of the will. You can’t “fall into” this kind of love. It takes conscious effort. Loving your enemies means acting in their best interests. You can pray for them and think of ways to help them. Jesus loved the whole world, even though the world was in rebellion against God. Jesus asked believers to follow his example by loving their enemies…and those who had done them wrong. I don’t know whether any of us has an enemy. I don’t know whether Tim…Margaret…Grady… Richard…Betty…Doris…J.T. or Lisa had.. an enemy. My guess is that they didn’t. However, there is belief today that we have enemies and that we should be wary of them…and should not show them love…and forgiveness. Instead as we celebrate that we have lived part of our earthly lives with Tim…Margaret… Grady… Richard…Betty…Doris…J.T. and Lisa …and that they await us in a mansion with many rooms…more magnificent than any we have seen or could even envision…let us…in our time remaining on earth before we join them…be people who give the kind of love they gave…the kind of love and forgiveness that Jesus gives…and Jesus wants us to give. Let us…as we come to the Lord’s Table remember the words of the Prayer of Saint Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; Where there is sadness, joy. O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek To be consoled as to console, To be understood as to understand, To be loved as to love, For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.” Jesus said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”