Wednesday, December 30, 2015

So, You Think You're Friendly?

Hebrews 13:1
Romans 12:13
Luke 2:41-52

Soundcloud: Listen Here (note: manuscript and live recorded sermon are often very different)

So You Think You're Friendly

I’ve been asked multiple times if there will be any Star Wars references today.  Yoda have to come and find out.  But, there won’t be, I’m sorry.  I promise it won’t be a dark sermon, though, and I’ll keep things on the light side.  But I won’t force Star Wars on you.  That’s all I could master muster for one sermon.

Marhabaan  مرحبا 
Creoso    z`ViN`N
καλωσόρισμα   Kalós orísate
ברוך בואך  Baruch haba 
ようこそ  Yōkoso
Dobro pozhalovat   Добро пожаловат

I'm a student of languages.  I find them fascinating.  Many languages express things we do not have words for in English, emotions or concepts we struggle to relate or don't even consider.  If you do a little research, you'll find that every language has the concept and a word or phrase for WELCOME.

And most websites include this phrase in their "useful phrases to know" for almost all languages.  After hello, and some important questions, it's ranked highly for communication.  While its urgency may not rank with things like, where is the bathroom or what you'd like to eat, it is important enough to us as people to create a phrase and learn it and use it.

Something within us recognizes the importance of not just greeting those we know and love, but to make even the stranger feel at home.  And this is a calling to which God calls us quite clearly.

A recent experiment... VIDEO

This was an experiment by a for-profit company.  Not a charity, not a church.  It created a space in which strangers could meet and find common ground, form the basis for friendship with a stranger through mutual love of something outside of themselves, and to go away strengthened, and encouraged.  Now... The Church is FAR more than that.  But it has to be AT LEAST that.  Is it?  Is the Church as friendly as a street corner ball pit?  Is our church?  Shouldn't it be?

Someone once said home is the place you go and they have to let you in.  Like most things, it's funny because it is true.  But what about the people who aren't family?  Don't people become family?  Aren't there neighbors you trust with a key?  With house sitting?  

Those friends of you and your kids.  At some point, they stop being front door guests and start coming in the side or back door or garage.  They knock as they open the door or stop knocking altogether.  As you sit around the kitchen table for snacks and meals and holidays, you stop asking if they'd like a drink and they head for the fridge for what you have on hand, maybe only because they stop by for it.  You moms of teenagers stock your pantry this way.

How many conversations do you have with someone before they're an acquaintance?  A friend?  A family member?  Can they become a loved one without conversation?  Is there anyone in your life you'd call a loved one with whom you've never had a heart to heart?  Heard a secret?  Shared a secret?  Been vulnerable?  Trusted?  Revealed or unearthed?  I bet there isn't.  So do you think you can form a family of faith, a community of believers if you don't converse?  Step outside your comfort zone?  Find the common?  Do you think you're friendly?  Have you tried as hard as the people in this video to make a friend, a connection to someone new here at First Pres or new to you?  Have you tried to do that often?  Every Sunday?  Today?

Most of you know David Upton.  This is David’s home.  When I visited him last week and asked if we could bring him anything to make his new room feel like home, he asked for just one thing.  A picture of the church.  This place is home to him.  You all have made it that.  Will you make it that for others?

Today, you have a ball near you, hopefully enough in each row for everyone to have one. Your color is going to be your guide.  During the offertory, you'll have a chance to go to someone new or new to you, or at least that you don't know well.  I'll know if you're cheating.  ;-)

Colors = specific question. 

Red –             Your favorite Christmas tradition – and WHY?
Blue –            Your favorite dessert or treat… who makes it or where do you get it?
Yellow –        Who loves you the most?
Green –         What do you love to do most?
Purple –         What makes you feel welcome?

In just a moment, during the offertory, you'll go find someone and get them to answer your question and you'll answer theirs.  After the service, I will once again ask you to linger and find two more people for the same assignment.  You will leave here knowing 2 new people a little better.  And you'll be known.  Meaningfully, I hope.  You'll have started something that I pray you'll continue.

Christ's clear command to us to welcome the stranger.  Christ's call is to make disciples.  Christ's disciples were his friends, those he loved, those with whom he broke bread and went through triumphs and trials, parades and storms.  Isn't that what the Church is for?  Are we a street corner or are we a ball pit?  Are we friendly enough that disciples can be made here?  Do you think you're friendly?

Do you think you’re friendly?  Will you be?  If so, say we will!

You can be.  You can do all things in Christ.  He will strengthen you.  Amen.

Let's Ruin Christmas! (Christmas Eve Contemporary Service)

John 9:39
John 18:37
Luke 2:8-18

Soundcloud: Listen Here (note: manuscript and live recorded sermon are often very different)

Let's Ruin Christmas

I came to know this as a true story.  Some years ago, a little boy named Marvin wanted to be in his church's nativity play.  The boy's parents were concerned because he was mentally challenged.  But the volunteers in charge of the production took him on happily and made him an innkeeper.  His only line was simple and he rehearsed it for months, "There is no room in the inn!"

Christmas Eve arrived and parents, especially Marvin's.  He was excited to do his part.  The lights lowered, the play started.  When Joseph and a young Mary expecting a small pillow arrived at his door and knocked, Marvin answered.  The couple asked desperately, do you have a place for us to stay?  My wife is soon to deliver!  Marvin crossed his arms, puffed out his chest, scowled his mightiest, and delivered with a boom, "THERE IS NO ROOM IN THE INN!"

Audible sighs were heard, smiles beamed from his parents.  Joseph and Mary turned dejected and trudged slowly away...  Marvin looked on.  His arms uncrossed, his scowl dissolved.  His lip quivered.  And Marvin belted out with great urgency... "Oh come on in baby Jesus!  We'll find room for you!"

Marvin ruined the play.  Marvin.  Ruined.  Christmas.  Or did he really?  I don't think anyone there that night really thought so.  I don't think any of us do.  Because isn't the point of the whole blessed story to make room for Jesus?  Isn't Marvin infinitely more wise than any of us?  Wasn't he moved as we all should be moved?  Didn't he GET it like we all strive to every year?

We read the Christmas story.  We tell it.  God slips in.  God knocks.  And we have to invite God in.  Even at Easter, God must be welcomed, invited.


So Let's ruin Christmas!!!

Let's take a page from Marvin's book and turn everything on its head.  Let's RUIN Christmas like he did.

Instead of looking for the War on Christmas, let's look for ways to undermine it all, to ruin Christmas like Marvin did, by really getting it, by refusing to play along with the script, by bravely inviting God into our home and making room, whatever it takes!

Instead of trying to shove baby Jesus into stores and advertising and holiday greetings and onto the airwaves and into our trees and football games and into the stockings and onto the shelves, let's invite the Christ child into our hearts and homes.

As a Methodist billboard recently read across a picture of red Starbucks cups... It's not their job to tell people about Christ.  It's ours.  Isn't it?

If you ask your own children to name the things in the living room that need to be present for it to be Christmas, what would they name first?  What would definitely make the list?  The tree?  Lights?  Stockings?  What about Santa's plate?  Cookies?  Milk?  Carrot for the reindeer?  We had a placemat and plate and cup and saucer.  I still remember the whole setup. 

What about a nativity?  Could they name all the characters?  Do they know anything from the story about when they arrived or why they stayed in the animal pen?  What about an Advent calendar?  Do you read a Christmas story?  Watch one?  Do you read the Christmas story?  Will you tonight?

Tonight or tomorrow, will you invite someone to join your family or will you go to someone who must remain at their care facility or home or shelter or hospital room?  Will you make room in your celebrations to be like little Marvin and ruin Christmas by welcoming Christ, even when it all seems so full?  Will you find the time to invite the lonely, the broken, the hungry, those walking in darkness to be in the light of your love this day?

Let's ruin Christmas!  Let's do all those things!  Let's pick up the phone and reconnect with a family member or friend or get to know a neighbor or find a stranger in need.

You see, Jesus, I think, would have loved Marvin's style.  I do.  Jesus was always up for ruining things.  Not to be a jerk, but to draw attention to what has been missed.  We use symbols to MAKE meaning.  They're important.  But as wonderful as those symbols are and as useful as they can be, they must be done with care or they run the risk of hiding the meaning they were created to breathe life into.

Jesus saw how his own people had buried the meaning of the Temple in systems of robbery and extortion that grew out of the loving symbolic acts of sacrifice.  He turned over tables to ruin the system because the meaning had been lost.  I'm not saying you go full blown Grinch tonight and empty the fridge, rip down the stockings, and shove the Christmas tree up the chimb-ly.  But, rearranging furniture in a not so calm manner was not outside Christ's repertoire.

Christ ruined royal entrances, riding in on donkeys instead of horses and chariots.  He ruined places of worship.  He ruined the religious hierarchy, the Jewish patriarchy, the Roman polity, and every prejudice his people and the world had every concocted or carefully crafted.  ANd he ruined Christmas.  He came in as a baby, born in a feedbox, visited first by the smelliest, poorest people in town.  And then he and his refugee family took off for Egypt immediately, fleeing threat of death, so that the Magi had to come find him in a new land.

Several years ago now, I was alone in Denver for Christmas.  I expected to wake up Christmas morning, sit around with the cat and maybe go to a gathering in the afternoon that church friends had invited me to attend with their family, knowing I'd be by myself and unable to travel to see family.

Instead, a dear friend arrived on my doorstep with baking supplies to make blueberry muffins from scratch.  We baked all morning, went and acquired a giant box of coffee and cups, and then headed out to the snowy empty streets of town to the corners where homeless people waited cold and mostly unnoticed.  We brought our baked goods, piping hot coffee, and hugs, and we listened and laughed and prayed with everyone.  We learned the stories of so many that day and for the first time felt like maybe we had gotten Christmas more right than we had in years, or ever.

My friend ruined Christmas.  My friend shook me up and got me out on the street.  Our friends and family thought we were a little nuts.  I'm pretty sure everyone's reaction was, "didn't you have plans?  Weren't you with your loved ones?  Didn't you wanna see your brothers and sisters?"

We did.  My friend is my hero.

My other hero is St. Nicholas.  St. Nicholas began his work when he noticed all the poor children who didn't have gifts to receive on Christmas, as had become a tradition.  He noticed they didn't have food or firewood either.  He loaded a sack and visited those in need.  Could there be a better example of faithfully following the call of Christ to notice our brothers and sisters, to love them, and to love them with a generosity of sharing all we have and are, the Good News we know, incarnate.

St.Nicholas, I am sure had family and friends and plans that day.  But he decided to chuck that, or at least, as Marvin would tell us... To make room for Jesus.  I like to think he invited his friends to be helpers... To not think of them-s-elves, but to fill a few bags, a few socks, a few hearts...

And can't we do that too?  Will you?  Will you make time tonight and tomorrow.  Will you make room?  Will you teach your children to make room and why?

Will you pitch in with St. Nick, with Marvin, with Jesus... Let's ruin Christmas.  Amen.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Bouncing Off the Walls

Bouncing Off the Walls

Thanksgiving Eve Worship Service, November 25, 2015

Scripture References for Sermon… (Only those with a star were read aloud)…

Genesis 12:10 – Abraham from Famine
Genesis 12:1920 – Abraham from Pharaoh
Genesis 14:1112 – Lot from Invasion
Genesis 21:14-16 – Hagar & Ishmael from Persecution
Genesis 26:13 – Isaac & Rebecca from Persecution
Genesis 27:4244 – Jacob from Violence
Genesis 47:4 – Jacob from Famine
Genesis 36:7 – Esau from Scarcity & Conflict
Genesis 37:28 – Joseph from Human Trafficking
Exodus 12:41 – Moses & ALL of Israel from Religious Persecution & War
*Deuteronomy 10:1719 – How to Treat the Refugee
Ruth 1:1 – Naomi from Famine
2 Kings 17:23 – ALL of Israel from War & Conquest by Assyria
2 Kings 24:1415 – ALL of Israel from War & Conquest by Babylon
Esther 2:57 – Esther & Mordechai from War & Conquest
Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel – Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego from War & Conquest
*Matthew 2:1314 – Jesus, Mary, & Joseph from Political Persecution
Acts 8:1 – The Early Church from Religious Persecution
Acts 11:19 – The Early Church from Religious Persecution
Acts 8:45 – Philip from Religious Persecution
Acts 12:17 – Peter from Religious Persecution
Acts 18:12 – Aquila & Pricilla from Religious Persecution
*Scriptures that were read before message.

 Deuteronomy 10:17‐19
17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the refugee, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the refugee, therefore, for you were refugees in the land of Egypt.

Matthew 2:13‐14
13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt.

Bouncing off the walls.  That should be normal. But I'll come back to that.

There's a reason I had us sing that silly kid song.  When you’re happy and you know it, when you’re thankful and you know it… Most of us need a reminder of what it means to express ourselves.  Unless you are a musician or "professional" artist, you do not have many opportunities in our society to express yourself... your desires, your hopes, your frustrations.  And no, road rage and Facebook are not what I mean.

We take some healthy opportunities to do this.  We pack a box for Operation Christmas Child, say yes when Kathy Sang or Bob Harris call.  But we take so few opportunities to open ourselves completely to this world and then RESPOND in healthy ways, good ways, ways that show the truth of our faith, the good news we claim, but don't always PROCLAIM.

Bouncing off the walls.

This weekend, we waited to tell Vincent we were going to the RenFest till the last min, as all parents know.  When I walked in the door, he was already bouncing off the walls.  Not about the festival.  But because it was MY birthday.  Not his.  Mine.  When was the last time you bounced off the walls for someone else's birthday?  He had a piece of notebook paper on which he'd drawn me a card and couldn't wait for me to read it.  The walls came off the house when we then told him about the festival.

There's a link going around on Facebook that advertises Google will tell you your future.  If you click, it says, if you care this much about YOUR future, what about the future of others?  What about refugees?

It's a bold question for google.  It's basically a Jesus question.  How many times does Jesus ask his disciples or the religious leaders or the crowds, what about... those people?  What about God's prophets in the whole Old Testament, God's Apostles in the New Testament?

What reaction do you have to all the news?  Sadness?  Anger?  Did you care much at all till the issues was Syrians being resettled here?  Did that change your reaction?

Bouncing off the walls.  That was Vincent's reaction because he knows and loves me.  Do we know the Syrians?  DO we want to?

If you had to guess, what is going on over there?  Do you know?  DO you care?  Do you want to?  Do you have any idea where Syria is?  What’s happening?  How many people?

I want to introduce you to your brothers and sisters in Syria a little bit.  Of the recorded deaths (experts are certain the numbers are higher), 200,000 have been killed.  That's like someone coming to the US, killing every man, woman, and child in Rowan County and Davie, and probably heading down to Concord and doing the same.  Everyone.  Then, for good measure, displacing every single person in the middle and western 2/3rds of the state, and driving the other 1/3rd into other countries.  The entire state, over 10 million people.  Do you have some idea now?

Well, yeah, Brian, but which are Christian and which are Muslim?  That is SO not the question that Jesus ever asks, nor the prophets.  In fact, the opposite.  That list of scriptures in your bulletin are the complete list of our ancestors of the faith who fled and became refugees.  Jesus and his parents are ON that list.  Take a look.

And that's to say nothing of the TWENTY TWO references in scripture to LOVE the REFUGEE in your land.  These are not commands to love the other Jewish people in the neighboring country (or Christians).  It was a GUARANTEE in that day and age that the foreigner, the refugee was of another faith, probably an idol worshipper or polytheist or something far stranger or more barbaric.  These commands are to love and welcome and defend the foreigner, the refugee.  To rescue and provide sanctuary.  And I will tell you right now that God made that command to a people who had no capacity for background checks, to people who were not protected by being surrounded by other countries and oceans and thousands of miles, but to a people right on the front lines, neighbors.

So certainly the loudest voices after these atrocities in a world so full of Christians would be words of welcome and hospitality, right???  Or at the very least, the loud voices of opposition would be from atheists or people of other faiths telling us Christians to not be so naive and foolish and risky!  Certainly any national leader or politician to be quoted in the paper or on TV as denying asylum to the MILLIONS in need would never claim the radical faith we claim and PROCLAIM through our actions of love and hospitality.  Right?

Certainly the worriers and the wise among us who have concerns would be spending all their creativity and resources on SOLUTIONS and ways to provide the love and welcome and sanctuary we are called to as Christians?

Certainly, we would consider the refusal to welcome middle-eastern families with children knocking at our door with the answer, "there's no room here," would be considered the real war on Christmas...  Right?

But Brian, I really do love my neighbor.  I do love the Lord and want to do as he calls me to do, but I'm scared.  Good.  That's honest.  And if you're not scared, you've gotten far too comfortable in your faith.  The Good Samaritan, the prodigal son, his brother, the disciples, the prophets, do we assume they were not scared?  No.  They just knew that to cling to this life more fiercely than the truth we have had revealed is to have no faith at all.  We are not a people of fear, but of faith.  And do we have a faith that we claim, or a faith we PROclaim?  Is it a faith that we intellectually assert and post about and use for guidance, or is it a faith we proclaim in word and deed?  Is it a faith that reminds us to buy a birthday card out of obligation or a faith that has us bouncing off the walls?

At a time when most of Christians are either terrified of who may arrive in our country and what they may do, or we remain blissfully unaware of our brothers and sisters knocking at the door this advent... one little boy in Texas showed a little light to remind us what it's like to be grateful for all the blessings we have and to SHOW it, to be a bouncing off the walls believer...

In the same week that the governor of Texas wrote a letter to the President refusing to accept Syrian refugees in his small state, a mosque was vandalized.  SEVEN year old, Jack heard this news and with the help of his mother, approached Naeem, a board member of the mosque, at the mosque in Pflugerville (a suburb of Austin, where I was born) with his piggy bank, the contents of which totaled about $20.  His mother said that they wanted to show them that what's not happening in Paris is NOT what is happening in Pflugerville. Said Naeem, "Jack’s $20 are worth $20 million to us because it’s the thought that counts,” Naeem said in an interview with ABC News. “Jack is a just a little older than my son, Ibrahim. If we have more kind-hearted kids like them in the world, I have hope for our future."

Jack has a bouncing off the walls faith. Jack is known all over Texas and the world now for his act of love. Will we be known for our security or our love? Our hate or our hospitality? Our fear or our faith? I don't know the name of the innkeeper in Bethlehem who let a young Middle Eastern family into his barn. Maybe history will not remember my name either. But I'd rather be nameless and famous for my compassion… than famous for my refusal to accept the refugee in my land when the prophets tell me my people were once wanderers too. So if you are thankful and you know it, SHOW it.  Don’t claim your faith only, but PROCLAIM it.  As for me and my household, we will be believers who bounce off the walls for our faith. Amen.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Mission Field of Dreams

You can listen to the full sermon here.

YouTube video link coming soon...

Or read the rough draft of the manuscript here...

Coming back from mission trip is often when I am most on fire for my faith.  And I've had a week to recover from the trip, but not yet come down from that high.  Y'all are in for it.  ;-) The trip was incredible and gave all 19 of the youth and 7 of us adults the opportunity to serve an immigrant community in Costa Rica known as Pavas.  As you've heard from our TWAMers this morning, it was a transformative experience... for the people in our neighborhood, and for us.

For the families, it was a lifelong dream realized, giving them a future and a hope.  And for our kids, it inspired a few dreams of what their lives can be, and we pray as leaders, alters their future and gives them hope.  And we, as adults, are inspired once more to dedicate our lives to serving the Lord every day, not giving up on dreaming what God may be calling us to do.

One of my favorite films centers on one man following his dreams with his family and the people put in his path along the way, the dreams of everyone he encounters.  Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones, among others, is one I've seen countless times.  As Kostner's character Ray lies awake one night with his wife, having already plowed his cornfield for a baseball field, he muses that his father must have had dreams, but he never did anything about them. 

He never did anything about them.

On Ray's journey, he encounters some wild and colorful characters and feels driven to help people reach their dreams.  He learns of a man named Moonlight Graham.  He goes searching for him and discovers that DOCTOR Graham passed away some years before.  A retired journalist reads them his obituary, detailing a life of quiet service and love.  Not just a doctor, but a hero who provided children in need with the necessities and the occasional ticket to the ballpark, a real hometown hero.  In interviewing the townspeople who knew him, they learned how this saint had changed the lives of everyone who lived there, famous only for caring for the needy and loving his wife in equal measures of devotion.

What on earth does any of this have to do with baseball? wonders our hero, Ray, he muses as he goes for moonlight stroll.  In his stroll, he wanders back in time and meets Doc Graham.  They share a cup of coffee and the elderly doctor tells him his story.  He played in the minor leagues and finally got called up.  He rode the bench and finally got called out of the dugout to outfield for a game.  The ball never made it out of the infield and he never got to bat.  Knowing he was going back to the minors was crushing, and he went home and became a doctor.

Ray asks him if he could fulfill any dream, have just one wish, what would it be?

Doc Graham says he never got to bat in the majors.  He says he'd like to face down a major league pitcher, let him go into his windup, and just before the pitch, wink.  Make him think he knew something he didn't.  Connect with the ball, run the bases, stretch a double into a triple, and flop face first into third, wrap his arms around the bag.  That is his wish.

Ray excitedly tells him that his baseball field is where dreams come true, that players long gone come back to play and live their dreams and begs him to go with him.  He politely declines.

On Ray's drive home with the author played by James Earl Jones, he sees a young kid hitchhiking.  They give him a lift and he introduces himself as Archie Graham.  They take the kid to his Iowa farm where he gets to play with the legends, they greats, and even fulfill his dream, arms around the bag and all.

Ray has done it, fulfilled his dreams.

And then in the climax of the film, Ray's extended family come to ruin things.  They don't believe in the magic and can't see the ballplayers.  A confrontation occurs and Ray's daughter falls from the bleachers, laying motionless on the ground not breathing.  As the mother runs for the house to call the paramedics, Moonlight Graham jogs in from the outfield.  He stops at the edge of the field, a boundary the players have never crossed in the film.  He drops his glove and slowly steps across, instantly becoming an old man in his wool suit and overcoat, carrying his medical bag.  He sits the young girl up and sees she's choking.  He gives her a few hard thumps on the back, she coughs up a hotdog, and is just fine.  Ray and his wife begin thanking him profusely, and he says, "No.  Thank YOU."

Oh my God, you can't go back, Ray says, realizing the profound sacrifice he's made.  He begins to apologize and he's interrupted.  Doc Graham tells him it's worth it.  He gives him a look, and Ray remembers his words in the diner several nights before when he tried to persuade him to come with him.  The doc had told him to have his dream come so close was devastating, like having your dreams brush by you like a stranger in a crowd. Ray says, it would kill most men to come so close, to only have 5 minutes to live their dream, that they'd consider it a tragedy! Doc Graham shakes his head and says, no.  If I had only gotten to be a doctor for 5 minutes, that would be a tragedy.  And the doc leaves, making his way through the legends who had razzed him as a rookie for days, patting him on the back and giving him accolades, he was their hero.

Ray spent the movie trying to help people fulfill their dreams, their one wish, only to discover that many of those dreams were a passing fantasy, and while exciting and momentarily fulfilling, it was not the dream to which they were called by God to be who they were called to be.  James Earl Jones helps him to see that his true calling is not to run around as an errand boy to a voice, but to love and appreciate his family, his father, and all he'd been given with the same passion he'd gone he distance for.  He had to learn to pursue not what was fleeting and personal, but eternal and godly (that which God dreams for God’s people and creation)…

How many of us doggedly pursue dreams of ambition, personal fulfillment, and good intentions for ourselves and others without pausing for a moment to consider if it is the dream God is calling us to pursue?  In the busyness and whirlwind of our lives in this country and this day and time, are we truly pausing to ask ourselves what plans God has, how God calls us to use our gifts to serve all those in need.  The master in our Gospel story gives gifts to his servants.  The good servants don't use those gifts for self-improvement, but rather to show their thankfulness to the master for his trust and generosity.  Have we done the same?  Do we pursue what is fleeting and personal, or eternal and godly?

Have we used our vocations, our skills, our resources to acquire and maintain at our worst, accolades and a lifestyle, and at our best, security and safety?  Have we challenged our kids to give selflessly, to risk their popularity, their future, and themselves to follow God's call on their lives?  The Bible challenges boldly with these questions!  The psalmist does not speak of the mother sparrow who builds a safe nest far from danger and risk, but one who builds her nest close to the altar, the mother who offers herself and her young before the Lord to go and be and do what the Lord calls her to go and be and do.

But, Brian!  Your story was about a doctor!  I am working hard to put my kid in the right private school or AP class or get them a sports scholarship!  They have talent!  Yes, they do!  Yes YOU do!  So are you pursuing a life of service or a life of security and self satisfaction and comfort?  This is a question we ask of ourselves every single mission trip.  That is one of the most valuable parts of these trips.  I was reminded of a talented young man at a Florida university who had the opportunity to play starting quarterback and told the offensive coordinator he was thrilled for the opportunity, but would need a week off during camp to go on his church mission trip.  The coordinator told him he was nuts to jeopardize this chance and possibly his career to miss out and go do this.  The brave young man said he understood that was a risk, but that was a priority to him and his family.  The head coach heard about this dedication to this calling God had placed on his heart and Tim Tebow was able to go on his mission trip AND start as quarterback, retaining his chance for a career in the NFL, but that was not promised to him for the risk he took.  He pursued not what was fleeting and personal, but eternal and godly.

Are the dreams you are chasing or building your life around, or preparing for your children the lives of safety, security, and acclaim, or lifelong service and pursuit of God's ongoing call?  Have you carved out time for your family to be dedicated disciples present in worship, active in faith community, and prioritized your time and resources, and dedicated your entire family to serving others above the fleeting dreams we all have?  If I'd only gotten to be a doctor for 5 minutes, that would be a tragedy.  The kind of doctor that Doc Graham was.

The youth on our trip don't just give a week of time and energy.  You don't just give money to build houses or send kids out of the country.  Our youth bring love and hope to the hopeless and downtrodden.  Your resources provide HOMES for families who have dreamed of nothing greater.  Our youth come to appreciate who greatly and richly they are blessed AND how they should respond in gratitude for the rest of their lives.  We help them grow their roots down deep into the lord so they respond in thankfulness, so they respond as good and faithful servants who seek every opportunity to serve the Lord because God expects them to use what he has given them! 

It's risky!  I don't usually recruit for mission trip by telling kids and parents how risky it is.  It's not the neighborhood, or the travel, or the governments, or the poverty, or the people we encounter, or the groups we work alongside, or dangerous heretical ideas with which they could come into contact.  Those are not the risks and the dangers.  The risk is that they will begin to dream dreams of God's call on their life, to seek and save the lost, to put service and love above safety, security, career, or the American dream.  They will dream big and pursue what is eternal and godly.

Our YWAM liaison, Mark, is a Kiwi, a New Zealander with a heart for the world and for mission, who shares his dream with his wife and 3, soon to be 4, kids to serve others in love and with all his gifts of leadership and music and hard work.  His father, he told me, once asked him what he would do about money and retirement.  Had God provided for those things?  What would Mark do when he was old?  Mark bravely, and with no naivety at all, told his father that then perhaps he would go to Asia and die in poverty like most of the world does.  I was floored.  Mark trusted God to provide for his needs so completely that he was going to give his all and follow the Lord wherever he called, whatever is eternal and godly.

I've told some of you that I spoke at length with Pedro, the father of the family that my work team built a house with and for.  His arm around me, he told me in Spanish that GOD had built this house, that we were his family now, that we were always welcome, as all of you are, and that one day when he saw God, he would tell him about us.

God dreams for us, brothers and sisters, and God dreams BIG.  We are the wicked servant whenever we dream small or dream for ourselves and our children in small ways.  But when we step aside, when we pray, when we seek, when we find need and meet it with great love, giving all of our heart in thankfulness with our roots deep in the Lord, we are the good and faithful servant.  When you pour out your resources to send young people to change lives and be transformed, when you join us and travel to those in need, when you step aside from micromanaging your life and the life of your children to set them on a road measured by success and security and prestige and allow them to seek God's call, we dream big, we love deeply, and discover the hopes and future God calls us to be a part of.

I challenge you this week... yes, more homework... sit down.  Sit down alone or with your spouse, your children, your parents.  Sit down and dream together.  Ask yourselves about your own gifts.  What do you have in small portion or abundance?  Then ask yourself what dreams God may have for each of you.  How will you serve, how will you make use of what the master has given you?  Will you be serving this year here, in our community, on mission trip?  Will you be volunteering or giving of your time and resources in some new way?  Make a list of the biggest dreams you can dream for how you are maybe being called to serve and use those many "talents" the master has given you.  Put that list on your fridge and keep looking at it, adding to it, changing it, and keep dreaming big. 

There's a big old mission field of dreams in this world.  And when you have dreamed and done and become, you will stand before the Lord, and a little man named Pedro will be there to introduce you, and the Lord will say, "well done, good and faithful servant."  Amen.


Isn't it strange, that princes and kings, 

and clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
and common-folk like you and me, 
are builders for eternity?

To each is given a bag of tools,

a shapeless mass and a Book of Rules;
and each must make 'ere time has flown,
a stumbling block or a stepping stone.

Who & WHOSE We Are

Appologies, but this sermon didn't even have a rough draft manuscript, just an outline, so for the sermon, the text is included in the recording with the sermon.  Listen to the audio here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Easter Said... Then Done

Acts 3:12-19 - Main Text
Ps 4 - Call to Worship
I John 3:1-7 - Yes

Call to Worship:
Answer me when I call, oh God of my righteousness!
Be gracious to me and hear my prayer.
Know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself.
The Lord hears when I call to him!
There are many who say, 'Who will show us some good?'
'Lift up your face upon us, Oh Lord!'

Easter Said... Then Done

[note:  this is a very rough manuscript and I do not use it when I preach.  I preach without notes, so the link to the audio very likely will not match up with the following.]

Imagine you're sitting at home one evening.  You're flipping channels, waiting for your favorite program to come on and you catch the last few minutes of the evening news.  You hear mentioned an outbreak of some unknown virus in a country you'd have trouble placing on the map, even though someone you know visited their recently.

The next day, you see it mentioned on your newsfeed on Facebook by a few people and within a few days you hear on the radio that it's spread to several other countries and it's causing some panic there.  By the next week, you're seeing news on Facebook and the local news that people are really worried because a few cases have shown up in the US and health workers are being diagnosed with it.  Several fatalities have been reported and people are worried.  It's spreading like wildfire in other parts of the world and it becomes the leading concern in conversations at work.

Someone shared this story with me years ago, and not so long ago it seemed all the more real with the Ebola virus.  Continue to imagine with me that it continues to spread.  Here in the US, entire cities are cordoned off by the National Guard.  Quarantine zones become a reality.  Looting and riots break out.  Fear and panic rise, violence and disorder erupt across the globe, millions are infected, millions die.  It seems no one is immune and it is highly contagious.

In earnest, the CDC and World Health Organization plead for people to come in and be tested in hopes of finding anyone with immunity to the virus.  People live in fear of contracting the disease and will not comply.  Soldiers move from house to house with medical teams testing everyone.

You and your family, your wife and your son head to the nearest testing site.  None of you has yet contracted the disease, but you're being told the virus is lethal in 100% of the people who become infected.  You wait in a ward with hundreds of other people who look completely hopeless and doctors and nurses who look afraid to even touch anyone.  A doctor hurries around asking for someone, you catch your last name.  Your eyes meet.  He doesn't look afraid like everyone else.  For the first time, you see hope.  He actually looks happy, excited.  He confirms you are the family he's seeking, and asks you to follow him to an office.  Your spouse stays with your son.

He begins by saying how extraordinary this is, how finally there's hope.  He says they have been looking for an immunity, something that they can use to create a cure, to halt the rising tide of casualties.  That's when he tells you that it's your son.  The cure is in his blood.  He carries a rare trait, an immunity.  Your relief comes in waves.  Not only is your son not infected, he's immune.  And his immunity can save your life and the lives of countless others.  His blood can save the world.

The doctor explains that they will need to take samples immediately and begin to study his blood and synthesize a cure immediately.  He uses a lot of medical jargon you don't understand about virology and immunology.  A lawyer from the government and representatives from the CDC and WHO come in and are just as excited as you are starting to feel.  They hand you a stack of documents to read and places for you to sign for consent to examine your son and take blood.  On the blood donation page, there is a blank above the signature line.  It says, blood in the amount of ______.  You pause.  It doesn't say how much.

The doctors and government reps all stop bustling and look to the doctor with whom you've been speaking.  No one will make eye contact with you.  Time is of the essence, he begins.  I mean, if we had more time... If we had more resources or any other subjects... If there was any way...  He can't finish a sentence.

Someone else lays a hand on his shoulder and looks at you with a pained expression.  All of it.  I'm afraid we need all of it.  Perhaps you break down, perhaps you scream in protest.  Perhaps you do both.  No one can console you, but no one tries to contradict you.  They know the weight of what they've asked.  And you know that without your son, everyone you have every known and loved, everyone... will die.

In the coming days, it is announced a cure has been found.  Doctors are applauded, teams of researchers are awarded.  The military is thanked for their heroism in a time of crisis.  Politicians vie for credit.  The world celebrates.  Dancing in the streets.  Parades.  Everywhere you turn, people are full of joy.  The pain you feel as the world moves on with little to no mention of your son does not compare, however, to the weeks that follow, the months after that.  Once things return to normal and the fear subsides, TV shows return, work resumes, vacations are planned, travel bans are lifted... no one follows the news of the recovery as closely as the descent into chaos.  Few people talk about the miracle of the cure or your son and the sacrifice of your family.  You find it hard to talk about and share that news because it seems no one wants to hear it.  Every day, this news so precious to you, this miracle you witnessed, you want to share it.  And so you do, with anyone and everyone who will listen.  And those who do are incredibly moved by the bravery of your son, the sacrifice of your family, and they want to tell everyone they meet.

What if... WHAT IF... we lived our lives as Easter people EVERY day, people touched by a miracle.  The passage today says that we are WITNESSES to this story.  But Brian, Easter was two weeks ago!  Easter was 2,000 years ago!  We weren't there!

The Disciples were there.  They witnessed his life, his miracles, his ministry, his teaching.  They experienced his love firsthand, he was their friend.  They watched their friend mocked, tortured, and killed.  They experienced the sacrifice and the resurrection.  They could not remain silent.  And because they could not keep it to themselves, we know the story today, and we continue to be an Easter people.  It's why we worship on Sunday, why Sunday became the Sabbath for early believers... the day our Lord was raised!

Sunday becomes an opportunity to share the Gospel.  I don't know how many times people have told me they just don't have opportunities to share their faith.  Every person in this room has an opportunity because they were here today.  Hear me out.

In the story I told you, imagine the opportunities created.  Every single time anyone would mention their health or a hospital or a doctor or the cure, travel or the government or military or anything that happened during that crisis, that's a window of opportunity to mention your son and what he did.

Just to be a church on Sunday weekly opens a door.  You go to lunch after this, nicely dressed.  No one has to ask where you've been.  They know.  You're incredibly kind and gracious to your waiter. You ask to pray for your waiter.  You are encouraging and patient of slow service, understanding it's a busy day and perhaps they are new or they have a family member facing crisis and didn't get to be in church today to share their concern with those who would pray and love them.  You're complimentary and appreciate of a job well done.  You tip well.

You have Saturday evening plans and as you head out, you tell them you'd love to stay longer, but you have church tomorrow and you want to be well-rested so you can teach a good lesson or pay attention to the sermon or prepare your children for worship.

Your son or daughter has a soccer match rescheduled for Sunday morning because of rain.  You tell them you won't be able to make it because your faith and family are a priority and a commitment you take seriously.  Another parent hears you and finally has the confidence to say, yes, us too.  I didn't want to be the only one.  Hey, us too, actually.

Your employer asks you to work Sunday morning and you say, ok, that's tricky with church, but my church has three services and I'll go to an earlier one this week.  I definitely can't miss my Bible study Tuesday night if I take this shift.

You're visiting family or friends out of town who rarely go to church.  Can we go to your church this Sunday with you?  We'd love to worship with y'all and meet your family of faith.

You have countless opportunities to open a door and invite someone in.  But, Brian, then what do I say?  Someone ask me... Brian, what do we say???

I'm glad you asked.  Because as believers who gather together to learn, to grow, and to encourage, we are here to help each other tell the story... our story!

I have been asked countless times in my journey how I came to be a pastor.  Perhaps you've been asked how you ended up in your calling or at this church, or a believer...

I've learned how to boil it down, to get at the marrow of it.  As our custodian here at church, Archie says, "to make a long story short..."

My first summer of college, I worked for a few weeks in the District Attorney's office of Cabarrus County, where I grew up.  In that time, I saw people I knew, friends of mine, marched into court in orange jumpsuits and shackles.  I spent the rest of the summer at Camp Grier in Old Fort, NC.  I worked as a camp counselor with kids from the boondocks, kids from the burbs, and kids from the inner city.  They had one thing in common that my friends in jumpsuits did not.  They were given the opportunity to hear the Easter story, to hear that they were loved, by God and a community of believers, part of a tradition of a people of faith.  That was something I knew my friends had not had.  I decided then that I wanted to be on the preventative rather than prosecutorial end of that process.  

When I told that to an older gentleman shortly after that became my story, he said, "So basically you were tired of pulling them out of the water and you wanted to go upstream and keep from jumping in in the first place?"  That's exactly it.

You see, that's my story of my encounter with God in my life.  It's not a conversion experience or a miracle.  God showed up and it was so profound that it could not be ignored.  And he does that for each of us.  Sometimes it's a moment or an experience.  Sometimes it's a summer or a relationship with someone who nudges us in a new direction.  Maybe it's years of growing up in Sunday school classes or youth groups or away from the church completely that has shaped you and opened your heart to the Easter story, the life-changing existence of a God who loves you and changes your life for  the better.  What is that for you?  What is your elevator speech?  What is your commercial spot?  What is your movie teaser trailer that hooks someone so much they want to... need to know more?

Because once you have opened that door, with your commitment, your life, the way you clearly prioritize the places you go, the things you do, where you give your time and money and the talents you take pride in... people will want to know.... THEN share that story, that bite-size sample of God in your life.

But Brian, I don't know how to condense my story or to choose a moment or experience like you shared... YOU ARE NOT ALONE.  There is a faith hero in your life.  A teacher or a relative or a pastor ;-) who can help you find the story that is yours, the words that will tell it.  And in each retelling, it will deepen, it will inspire.

You have homework this week.  Turn to the person beside you... if you don't know them, introduce yourself after this service right away.  If you know them, this will help even more...  Tell them... YOU HAVE HOMEWORK THIS WEEK...  If you have your story, your elevator speech, your teaser trailer... you find the moment to share it, the door that opens because someone wants to know about this priority in your life, this thing you call faith.  You find it, you make it, and you share.

If you are one of those people who just said, but I don't have one!  YOUR homework this week is to learn to tell yours.  Think now, write it on your bulletin, who is your person, your faith person, your go-to spiritual advisor, accountability partner, your small group, or your mentor.  Write it down now.  Go to them.  Ask them for help.  Write down, "my Easter experience."  I will be asking you when I see you this or at church or at Go Burrito or Mean Mug or Harris Teeter what your story is and I really want to know.  Your experience of Easter is what makes you a follower of Christ.  It's what makes US an Easter people, children of God, descendants of the resurrection!

Do not be a people who have Easter for just one day, Easter preached, Easter experienced, Easter said... and then DONE.  This is our story.  We have to find ways to share it every day.

Monday, December 29, 2014

I Know What I Hope...

Luke 2:1-20
Revelation 21:1-4

I Know What I Hope...

Emily Dickinson said that…
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.

Recently, the Pope has come out and spoken on something for which many of us hold out hope... that our furry and feathered friends, our pets, will be in heaven.  I have always believed this might be true, and despite centuries of good priests and pastors and shattering the worlds of little kids, many of us hold to it.  You've probably seen the church signs.  On this side of the street, "All dogs go to heaven."  On that side of the street, "Animals don't have souls, read your Bible."  Back on this side, "Presbyterian dogs have souls, Baptists, ask your minister."  "Being Presbyterian does not grant you a soul, this is not up for debate!"  "Free souls with every conversion and baptism!"  Now don't you wish we had a scrolling marquee?

I tend to believe that all that language about God's Kingdom and new heavens and new earths that includes words about animals lying down together, ox and lamb and calf with predators of all kind... it's so prevalent that I believe a new heaven and earth without animals makes very little sense.  But I don't know.  I know what I hope.

At this time of year, even with the rush, there are times of challenge and reflection and memory that crash together… the interplay of time, eternity, loss, and hope…  We think of the memories we have with all the loved ones gathered here with us at worship, those under the tree tomorrow morning, or around tables all Advent season.  We think back on the memories we've collected, the moments we've shared.  We think of all those who are not here because of time or distance or new circumstances, those who we've lost, and those who we feel with us in a special way this time of year.  We settle in to hear the words in scripture and song that are so familiar, and yet so wildly fantastical.  A king born in a manger, God's son born to a lowly family in a barn, shepherds and kings, a virgin birth, angels and dreams and stars in the sky!

We are challenged in our reason and for our "reasons" in a season that has nothing to do with reason at all. God loved us and came and dwelt with us, Emmanuel.  Hope was born this day.  Explain that.  Explain your traditions.  Explain your gatherings, your gifts, your greetings.  As our Jewish brethren say of God showing up, a miracle happened here.  Maybe hope is enough.  Maybe what we can prove or explain or verify or defend in the midst of our rituals, our celebrations, our joy and our grief is not nearly so important as what we hope.  Do you believe in miracles?  Do you believe in the virgin birth?  Do you believe Mary was 14 or 24?  How about Joseph?  Was the star a supernova?  Did God really come to earth?  Do you believe in angels?  Santa?  Dreams and prophecies?  What do you believe?!?  More importantly... what do you hope?

When I was in seminary, I had a professor by the name of Dr. Carson Brison.  He was a wise man and an excellent story teller and writer.  He wrote a story I'd like to share with you about a student he had in his time at small private university some years ago.

He had a class that met Tuesdays and Thursdays, and his student by the name of Jessie usually came to one or the other.  At the midterms, he sent home progress reports to parents.  When her mother called, he shared some study tips and suggested that coming to class a lot more would help.  Her mom agreed.  As the conversation wrapped up, she asked if he was the "same Carson" who signed the VA benefits forms for dependents of veterans who had died in the line of duty and he confirmed he was.

No one had been able to tell her what happened, but she took comfort in being told it happened suddenly.  Her last memory was a day in the park when he had carried Jessie high on his shoulders.  Some memories never fade.

Jessie's attendance did improve for a short time, but reverted to her former pattern.  When she came, she took notes for a while and then would put her head down.  She seemed constantly to be exhausted.  Her classmates clearly did not admire her.

During the final class period, they studied the passage we read tonight from Revelation 21 and how it related to other apocalyptic literature.  Just before dismissing the class, Jessie raised her hand, and without waiting to be called on, she asked, "That verse..." She glanced around the classroom at impatient classmates.  "That verse about God drying every tear.  Does that mean every tear from that time on... or that God will go back into all time and find every tear and dry all of them too?"

A smart popular student on the front row rolled her eyes, checked her watch, crossed her arms and hunkered impatiently into her seat.  A murmur and several chuckles came from around the room as they began packing their bags. 

My professor had not expected a question from Jessie.  Ever.  Especially not about the interplay of time, eternity, loss, and hope.  He did his very best recover from the surprise, his mind reeling with considerations of interpretation of historical texts, literary and historical and theological contexts.  How hard it is to interpret a text of this kind in a linear way.  And he thought about his conversation with Jessie's mom.  And of course, the bright annoyed student right in front of him.  He felt an answer come out of him and was sure it was no good immediately.  Jessie's disappointment was clear.

The next week, following that abrupt inquiry, my professor put Jessie's question on the exam as purely extra credit, dressed up with lots of academic language, but at its heart, clearly the same question. Only two students attempted to answer the question... Jessie... and the bright popular student who had been so annoyed that day.

In part, Jessie's response was this... The day I asked this question, not quite how you put it here, you didn’t really answer it.  I called my mom and told her my religion professor didn't answer my only question all semester.  I told her it was more like you talked about what you hoped the answer would be.  She said that for some questions in life, it might count more what you hope the answer is than that you have it all figured out.  Do you think she's right?

You don't know this, but my father died when I was very young.  I don't really remember him except one day he rode me on his shoulders so high I felt like I was flying.  I don't know the answer to this question professor.  I really don't.  But I know what I hope the answer is.  I know what I hope.  Is that worth any points?

I think I really need this extra credit to pass this course.  I am transferring home next semester and I need as many classes as possible to transfer.

The answer from the bright popular girl on the front row dealt with the structure of the passage, literary and historical context, grammar and syntax.  She wrote rather poetically, that such texts seem to be dipped in a special coating that makes them resistant to simple answers to tough questions like the one the girl asked.  These writings deal not in the currency of verifiable fact, but in the currency of hope.  She then added a personal note and request to her answer...

I know my answer is a good one.  You know I don't need any extra credit.  Please consider giving my credit to the girl on the back row, the one who slept all the time and kept us late that day and whose question seemed to shake you so badly.  I bet she needs it.  I want her to have it.  I think maybe so do you.  I think I saw what you thought when a lot of us laughed.

My professor shared that he didn't know what happened to the girl or if she transferred.  He doesn't know what moved that bright popular girl from indifference to compassion.  He doesn't know if he made the right decision about her extra credit and final grade.  He still doesn't know a perfect answer to any question about time, eternity, loss, and hope. 

And neither do I.  But I know what I hope.  And my prayer as you leave here is that no matter what you face in the holiday season or your year ahead, challenges and celebrations, joy and loss, when you are asked what you know and you have nothing, I pray you know what you hope.  What do I know?  I really don't know.  But I know what I hope.  Amen.