"SHAPED" - Romans 12:9-13; Jeremiah 18:1-11
"SOVEREIGNTY" - Psalm 121; Luke 12:49-56
Here we are on Rally Day – the fresh start on a new church year. Church School kicks off with new classes and good opportunities for fellowship and nurture. Worship returns to 11:00am – making it easier for some of us to get to church. The choir is back – thanks be to God! –offering so much with their gifts and voices to our worship experience. We have other opportunities in place too to engage us, encourage us, and deepen connections and faith as we move into this new season.
But here is a question: are we – the congregation gathered – mostly good people who come to church to be a little bit better? Are we here so that Christian faith can mostly just help us along our way?
I remember a wonderful quote from one of my mentors – William Sloane Coffin: “It is often said that the Church is a crutch. Of course it’s a crutch. But what makes you think you don’t limp?” (Credo, p. 137)
We do need a crutch for our limp: community, worship, encouragement in faith, places to grow and serve together – all these help us with our limp.
"URGENCY" - Luke 12:49-56; Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
In some quiet moments of study and reflection in my 3rd floor office this week, a certain old book from my shelf got my attention ( I got lots of books!). I purchased this book while in Seminary in the mid-1980’s. The author is a world famous Catholic theologian named Hans Kung. The book is small and succinct and entitled, Why I Am Still A Christian. This book was next to another book that I was looking for – but it is this one by Kung that got my rapt attention.
This is how the book opens: “What can I rely on today? What can we hold to? I am not a pessimist, but we scarcely need reminding that we are now in a ‘crisis’ of values as profound as it is far-reaching.” Kung continues: “This large scale crisis of values has thrown modern society into conflicts which have not yet by any means been resolved. . . . How do we lay down priorities and preferences? . . .How do we know what we can rely on?” (see H. Kung, p. 19-20)
"GENEROSITY" - Psalm 112; Luke 12:13-21
James Ryan is the President of UVA. Prior to coming to Charlottesville to lead Thomas Jefferson’s institution, Ryan was Dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
James Ryan wrote the book about Richmond – Five Miles Away, A World Apart – about the disparity in education in our city. Ryan has recently written another good book – a helpful book for all of us – whether we love UVA, or VT, or UNC, or Duke. The book is entitled, Wait, What? It is a book about life’s essential questions and how to get the most out of life. Ryan says, it is not the answers that really matter; it is . . . . the questions. And he says that there are really five essential questions that you should ask yourself and others on a daily basis. And the first question is “Wait, what?” You can get the book and discover the other four questions on your own – I recommend it. It is short book, easy to read, and full of helpful, encouraging insights.
"PRAYER" - Proverbs 3:5-10; Luke 11:1-13
The word for today is GENEROSITY. This is a very important attribute of the faithful life. God wants all of us to grow in faith, . . . . and GENEROSITY. GENEROSITY is a gift of the Spirit; it is a sign of mature faith. GENEROSITY is also a certain avenue to joy, which is another fine attribute of faith. When we are generous, we discover more joy!
In some devotional reading this week, I can upon an intriguing and also indicting quote from the spiritual writer, Thomas Merton. Merton describes our tendency to keep our distance from God. Merton warns that many Christians "are not really interested in God, except in order to insure themselves against losing heaven and going to hell.” Many Christians, he says, “confine their interior life to a few routine exercises of piety (think prayers before meals or bedtime) and a few external acts of worship and service performed as a matter of duty. Such people,” Merton says, “are careful to avoid sin. They respect God as a Master. (And here is where it gets indicting. . . ) In actual practice, their minds and hearts are taken up with their own ambitions and troubles and comforts and pleasures and all their worldly interests and anxieties and fears. God is only invited to enter this charmed circle to smooth difficulties and to dispense rewards.” (See Devotional Classics, 18)
Ouch. We need to keep tending to our faithful lives so that this is not a description of us. God is NOT finished with us.
"VOCATION" - Psalm 145:1-13; Luke 10:1-11
“The God of love had a really bad week.”
That is the title of an opinion piece written recently by Diana Butler Bass for CNN. She wrote it following the infamous political rally in NC where a crowd chanted over and over: “Send her back.”
Diana Butler Bass has long been a faithful and effective commentator on American Christianity. She has written many important books about the changes in Christianity in our country. In this recent article, she ponders how so many people at that rally – likely white evangelical Christians – could chant “send her back.” Had they forgotten that Sunday School song: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world”?
“The God of love had a really bad week.”
"FREEDOM" - Deuteronomy 10:12-22; Galatians 5:1,13-26
David Brooks writes a regular and thoughtful column for the NY Times. David Brooks also writes good books - books that have inspired me and many across the land. Brooks has become, not just a distinguished writer, but an important voice that keeps calling us to our better selves, to higher community values, to be our best as people and as a nation.
In David Brooks’ most recent book, Second Mountain, he addresses an important and familiar topic for him: what is it that gives meaning and purpose, depth and value to life? That is a worthwhile pursuit. In Second Mountain, Brooks explores the four commitments that define a life of meaning and purpose:
- commitment to a spouse and family
- commitment to a vocation
- commitment to a philosophy or faith tradition
- commitment to a community.
"DEMONS" - Psalm 103:1-8; Luke 8:26-39
FREEDOM! This has always been a big word in American history and culture. It is a significant word this week as we come once again upon Independence Day.
We find ourselves today just a few blocks from where Patrick Henry said this in 1775, before the colonists had gained FREEDOM from Great Britain: "I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me . . . (say it with me) liberty or give me death."
We find ourselves in this great commonwealth, in the shadow of the Capital designed by Thomas Jefferson, who is famous for lots of things, but especially known for writing these words from the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights-that among these are . . . (you recall them?) . . . life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
"FOCUS" - Psalm 27; Acts 16: 16 - 34
Many of you know that my upbringing had me absolutely enfolded into the Presbyterian family of the Christian tradition. My father was a Presbyterian minister. My earliest life and memories include riding my tricycle on the sidewalks just outside of the church sanctuary, because the manse where we lived was next to the church. I got into mischief racing my brothers on our bellies underneath the pews of the sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church, Auburn, AL. Going weekly to Sunday School and Worship, participating in Confirmation, going to Youth group – these are the things that totally shaped my life. I remain so blessed to be nurtured in a loving, faith-filled home.
"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.”
"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.
‘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)