"FOCUS" - Psalm 27; Acts 16: 16 - 34
"CONNECTED" - John 10:22-30; Psalm 23
What do you do with what happens to you?
I remember it like it was yesterday. Our daughter, in the seventh grade at the time, had had a terrible day with some friends at school. I was sitting on the side of her bed as she was trying to go to sleep. The tears were flowing. In her mind, her world was falling apart. I felt so sad for her and frustrated that I could not help, could not console her, could not help her understand that everything would work out. So after a pause, I tried a new tactic. I said, “you know how when you are riding your bike, you come upon gravel, and the gravel feels unsteady sometimes, making the wheel slip and you might even fall.” She said, through her tears, “Oh, dad. . . . yeah, ok.”
I continued, “when that happens, and your tire slips on the gravel, you might fall off, you might bang your leg on the crossbar, you might skin your knee; it is a pain; it’s not fun. . . .But you keep riding, right?” She said “yeah.” And I continued: “and then sometimes you are riding your bike and you are going too fast, . . .and you lose control, . . .and you end up in a ditch, . . . and you go flying off, and you might bang you head, and get hurt, . . . even have to go to the hospital. . . . . This is kind of how life goes. We have to deal with gravel under our wheel sometimes. And other times we have a big crash. . . . Which do you think this is?”
She paused and remained silent for a moment, then she said, “Ok.”
We said her prayers . . . . and she went to sleep.
"APPEAL" - Psalm 130, I Thessalonians 5:12 - 24
With perhaps the double exception of Adam and Eve, every single human being possesses a navel – a belly button. This is because we are all born CONNECTED to our mothers by an umbilical cord. And when we are born, as you know, that cord is cut, enabling us to sleep in our own bed, be fed by our mouths, and find life as individuals. But the navel, the belly button, is part of all of us forever.
I have a vivid memory of all of this because of that powerful moment at the birth of all three of our children. The doctor invited me, as is often the custom, to cut the umbilical cord at each birth. It is a simple snip, but it is a significant reminder that we are born CONNECTED to our mother.
"RESURRECTION" - Luke 24:1 - 12; Acts 10:34 - 43
There was a story once in the New York Times. It is a true story of a British gentleman who purchased a new Rolls Royce automobile. This man was excited about his new car, but he could find nothing in the advertising material, nothing in the manual, or on the automobile itself that told him the horsepower of the engine. He wanted to know just how strong, how fast his new car was. On making inquiries, the man learned that it was not the policy of Rolls Royce to talk about the horsepower of their automobiles. But the man, though, was curious. He had paid a rather substantial price; he thought he was entitled to know the horsepower. So he wrote the company and asked them to provide the information. In a few days he heard back – it was a one word answer – ADEQUATE. (See E. Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, p. 300)
"MERCIFUL" - Psalm 25:1-10; Matthew 5:7
A certain preacher got up in the pulpit on Easter Sunday. He announced to the congregation: “Good people – I have here three sermons (and he held out his papers). I have a $100 sermon that lasts 5 minutes! I have a $50 sermon that lasts 15 minutes! And I have a $20 sermon that lasts 30 minutes.”
Then he said: “Let’s have the ushers come and take up the offering. . . . We will see which of these sermons I deliver this morning.”
You may be thinking that this is the preacher’s favorite Sunday – with all the decorations and fantastic music, with people in the pews, and flowers, all singing and celebrating the resurrection.
But it is hard to preach on Easter.
We all know the storyline: Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!
"LIKE" - Matthew 6:1-8; Jeremiah 17:5-10
Even though this is the last day of March, we continue to be in the midst of “March Madness.” March Madness is the intense, intoxicating, inspired end of the NCAA college basketball tournament. By the end of today, there will be just four teams left playing for the championship next weekend.
So with basketball on the mind and heart, and so many Carolina, Duke, VT, and UVA fans in this church, I beg a moment of indulgence for another team and another coach – Davidson – which also has more than a few devoted fans in this congregation. I note the “eye-rolling,” but bear with me one moment.
Davidson was NOT in the tournament. I want to share a story about what Davidson coach Bob McKillop did with this year’s team. Last summer, he took the Davidson Wildcats from North Carolina to Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp in Poland.
"COURAGEOUS" - I Corinthians 13:1-8a; Jeremiah 1:4-10
The greatest joy of pastoral ministry is the absolute privilege to know and be with people on the journey of life, to get to know people’s heart and faith, and to share so many intimate aspects of life.
One of the people who made an indelible and deep impression on my life was a devoted and gracious woman in my previous congregation. Her name was Helen. She was so kind and gracious in all aspects of her life; and she died with an amazing fortitude and faithfulness.
Helen was a generation older – and would have been a contemporary of my parents – but she had a most youthful spirit. There was a pervasive warmth and gentleness both in her face and in her actions. She was present in church on Sundays, and on many other days. Her generosity and thoughtfulness had her leading the way in the church’s compassion and care. She was famous for her pound cakes and for showing up at people’s homes just when love and care was most needed. She spread joy and encouragement everywhere she went. On a personal note, she initiated and maintained a supportive and loving relationship with our youngest daughter Ginny, as Ginny navigated the challenges and complexities of middle school life.
"REMEMBERING" - I Corinthians 15:50-58; Psalm 105
On Wednesday of this past week, we had our regular luncheon of interfaith clergy. This group – made up of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders in RVA – called the “Faith Forum” - meets on the last Wednesday of the month to share a simple meal, to enjoy conversation, and to deepen connections and friendship.
At this past week’s gathering of the Faith Forum, as we were enjoying our lunch, the host invited us to introduce ourselves (because many of us are still getting to know each other), and then asked us to share an answer to this question: “what in your life is going on in these days where COURAGE is requested/demanded/invited from you?” Or put more simply: how and where in our lives are we being called to be more COURAGEOUS?
"PRAISE" - Philippians 4:8-9; Psalm 104
Some of you are probably familiar with the name Will Smith. Will Smith is an African American actor, singer, and comedian. In 2007, Newsweek magazine called him the “most powerful actor in Hollywood.” He has been nominated for 5 Golden Globes and 2 Academy Awards. He has won 4 Grammy Awards for his singing. Many of his films have been blockbuster hits, earning millions of dollars and millions of fans. And his ability to move easily between television and movies, between music and comedy, between serious roles and humorous ones, keeps Will Smith as one of the most popular and most successful names in the entertainment industry.
So, if you Google Will Smith’s name, you can find pages and pages of information. What you can also find is a Youtube video that he posted of himself. The video shows Will Smith skydiving in Dubai. That Youtube video has been watched more than 28 million times. It is not just a video about sky-diving. It is a video about over-coming your fears!!
"COLLABORATIVE" - Isaiah 40:1-5; Luke 3:1-6
Early on Monday morning of this past week, I found myself sitting in the meeting room at the offices for Habitat for Humanity. I have served on the Board of Richmond Metropolitan Habitat for the last 5 years or so. But this was an unusual and challenging meeting. The staff of Habitat had called me over the previous weekend to let me know that one of the 15 staff members at Habitat was in a crisis: her husband had committed suicide in the home. The Habitat leadership team had asked me to come over, to meet with the full staff – to share and listen, to be present and supportive, to assist them all - at the start of the workday on Monday. So we gathered to talk about suicide, to talk about caring for their office colleague, to help them move forward in light of the crisis. As you might imagine, it was very sad, . . . very solemn, . . . and yet also a beautiful picture of compassionate people trying to deal with a very tragic situation.
"RIGHTEOUSNESS"- Luke 21:25-36; Jeremiah 33:14-16
It is Advent time. And whenever it is Advent time, we get John – John the Baptist.
It is not yet time for Jesus. It is time for getting ready for Jesus. And getting ready does not mean busy activities, entertaining, and parties. John’s getting ready message is about something more, something bigger. Listen today to the text from Luke 3:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
"BIRTHPANGS"- Psalm 24; Mark 13:1-8
In the last 18 months, perhaps more than any other time in my three decades of pastoral ministry, I have been told two things: a) that my preaching is getting a little too political and b) that my preaching is not political enough (smile).
I certainly work hard to make my sermons relevant and engaged with our life and times. But I also do not ever want my preaching to be mostly responsive, or worse, reactive, especially to the latest tweet or some other news item.
But today, on this first Sunday in Advent, when the church launches into a new church year, I feel pulled again into the heartaches and ever troubling circumstances of these days.
"CONGRUENCE" Isaiah 12:1 - 6; Mark 12: 38 - 44
‘Speaking Christian,’ by which I mean knowing and understanding Christian language, is in a state of crisis in our culture. That is how Marcus Borg begins his book by that title: Speaking Christian. Here is what he means: for many people, Christianity has become an unfamiliar language. Many people either do not know the words at all or, if they have heard the words, have no idea what they mean or, perhaps more likely, do not care what they mean.
Then there is another crisis across recent decades. The words that Christians have used can take on very different meanings or different emphases. This only creates more confusion and misunderstanding. (see M. Borg’s book, Speaking Christian)
"RESPONSIBILITY" - Genesis 3:1-13; Genesis 12:1-3; Matthew 5:14-16
Some of you know the name, Eugene Peterson. Peterson was, for 29 years, the pastor of a Presbyterian congregation in Bel Air, MD. He gave his life to preaching, teaching, and pastoring ordinary people through the ups and downs of life.
Eugene Peterson also wrote 35 books – so many inspiring ones about faith and life, and faithfulness in life. He devoted his life to the Biblical languages – Hebrew and Greek – and, across the years, translated the entire Bible into the everyday language of conversation, marketplace, and playground. If you do not know Eugene Peterson’s The Message, you should. It gives fresh insight and inspiration to Bible study and Bible reading.
"TRUSTEES" - Deuteronomy 30:15-20; II Corinthians 9:6-12
When a national and horrific tragedy happens (mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh) on a Saturday, it is especially hard for the preacher. We’ve planned and prepared for worship, and then, at the late hour, things change. But what I had prepared, I hope and pray, with God’s grace and help, does speak to us today. Bear with me and let’s be open to God’s presence, God’s promises, and be led as God’s people.
Let us pray: In these trying times, O God, show us your mercy; guide us in your way. We seek to live as disciples of Jesus Christ and toward his promised reign of peace. Amen.
"COMMUNITY" - Deuteronomy 10:12-22; Romans 12:3-8
The book of Joshua is the 6th book in the Bible. In Joshua 6, there is a story that many of you remember from childhood Sunday School. The Israelites, and Joshua were trying to overtake the city of Jericho. But it was shut up tight, like a castle. So the Lord told the people to march around the walls, to blow trumpets, and shout, and the walls of Jericho would come tumbling down. This is one of those most vivid stories of God’s presence, God’s power, and God’s action!
One Sunday morning, the preacher of a certain church was visiting various Sunday School classes just to see how they were doing, especially in learning the Bible.
"FEAR-OF-THE-LORD" - Isaiah 11:1-3a; Acts 4:32-5:12
In 1966 an 11-year-old black boy moved with his parents and family into a white neighborhood in Washington, DC. Sitting with his two brothers and two sisters on the front steps of the house, he waited to see how they would be greeted. They were not. Passers-by turned and looked at them but no one gave them a smile or even a glance of recognition. All the fearful stories he had heard about how whites treated blacks seemed to be coming true. Writing about those days many years later, he says, “I knew we were not welcome here. I knew we were not liked here. I knew we should not have moved here.. . .”
“SOUL” - Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Luke 10:25-38
In this wonderful church family, we have lots of very literate and literary people. We have lots of smart people who read books, talk about books, enjoy words, and even love word games.
I learned a new word this week – Syntagm – s-y-n-t-a-g-m.
Do you know that word? It is a linguistic unit consisting of words or phrases that are all bound together, in relationship to each other. The word goes back to the Greek, meaning “arranged together.” Syntagm is a bound phrase. And my Microsoft Word program does not even recognize the word – you know - puts a read underline under syntagm, every time I typed it.
"WHOLENESS" - Psalm 124; Mark 7:24 - 37
For many decades, almost 175 years, faithful Richmonders have been gathering in this sacred sanctuary. We come to pray and sing; we come to hear God’s word from sacred texts (Scripture); we come to open our hearts to God’s Spirit. We also come into these pews – some of us the SAME pews each week - to find comfort for our afflictions, which come to all of us in the unfolding of life; and we seek to afflict the comfortable because God needs us and keeps calling forth our love and commitments for spreading hope and light along these city streets and across the world.
"WISE" - Proverbs 3:7-14; Ephesians 5:15-20
Contemporary writer, speaker, and preacher, Rob Bell reminds us about the best question we should ask when reading the Bible. What is the best question to ask when reading the Bible? It is this: “Why did people find this important to write down and preserve?”
Think about that question as I read this story from Mark 7. This is probably not a lesson you remember from Sunday School:
“These are interesting times.”
I have used that phrase often lately. I’ve heard it from many of you as well.
In some ways, “interesting times” is a gentle way of saying what we really feel is quite harsh and maddening.
We keep talking about and thinking about Phil Hart and the changes he faces in his life without his dear Dot, whom we will all miss so much. What a great woman – strong and capable, gracious and kind, so devoted to so much good in this church and in the world. And she died – too young, too soon, too unexpectedly. This is perplexing, saddening, raising questions and uncertainty, forcing us to face life once again – striving to trust God and serve God.