About Me

My photo
Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Matthew 1:18-25 "Dreams (Part 3): Directions"
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)
Sunday, December 23, 2007

Joseph - the dreamer - who shares his name with his ancestor, the Old Testament Joseph of the Coat of Many Colors who also was a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams - Joseph of the New Testament, Joseph the dreamer, is visited in a dream by an angel. And Joseph does just as the angel tells him to do. Joseph follows direction.

But back up. Joseph - the dreamer - is also Joseph the Righteous. Joseph is a good man, the Bible tells us, because he is a righteous man. Joseph is a righteous man because he follows the Bible. Joseph follows the Bible's direction. Joseph obeys the rules. In Joseph's time, righteousness meant looking up a rule and doing what the rule said to do. In this case, the rule said to "dismiss" Mary. An angrier man might have chosen the rule that gave the option of public capital punishment.

Which puts Joseph in a bind. He is Joseph the Righteous; but he is also Joseph the Dreamer. Joseph comes from a long line of both righteous people and dreamer-people. Which is what the previous Bible verses that we didn't read - and for good reason - attest. The first seventeen verses of Matthew (the genealogies we use to torture Sunday School students) are all about Joseph's lineage, as it progresses one final step, to Jesus. This one begat that one who begat another one. And there they all are for the public record - generation after generation of righteous people and dreamer-people lined up like a gauntlet, with Joseph at the end. So, on his bed one troubled night, having finally drifted off into sleep, a thousand years of righteousness and a thousand years of dreams come crashing together in poor Joseph's head. Here are the rules, and here is the dream. "Joseph, dismiss Mary." "Joseph, take her as your wife." "Joseph, remember the rules." Joseph, remember your love." Which will Joseph choose? What will Joseph do?

From the standpoint of what's written in the Bible, this is pretty much Joseph's fifteen minutes of fame. The only other mention of him in the gospels is when he's angry at the teenage Jesus (and what father hasn't been angry at a teenage son?) angry at his son for lagging behind at the temple, causing his mother and father to leave him "Home Alone." Some writers have speculated that Joseph must have died while Jesus was still young, because there's no mention of him during the ministry years. These two references and the biographical note that Joseph was a carpenter - that's all we know. Setting aside all speculation, it may be that the reason we get all the genealogical buildup just before the angel appears in his dream is to say one thing. And that one thing is this: whatever else happened in Joseph's life, he was born, he was placed on earth for this one moment. It could be that this one moment, this one night, this one choice, is the highlight and the purpose of Joseph's entire life. If so, there's a lot riding on the interpretation of one man's dream. Knowing what we know about Joseph's choices, there was. Had Joseph chosen differently, well, suffice to say the world would be a different place.

We all have those moments when we have to make hard choices, choices between what the rules say -- or what our family says, or what our guidance counselor says, or sometimes even what the Bible says -- we all have these moments when we have to choose between what the rules say and what our dreams tell us. In that respect, Joseph lives on far beyond his fifteen minutes. Joseph lives on in the eternal battles between our hearts and our minds. When everything and everyone is telling us to do one thing, but our gut is telling us to do something else, that's a Joseph Moment. Angels show up in the strangest of places. In Joseph's time, dreams were their media of choice, the Angel Channel. But angels and their directions to us can show up in an infinity of other places -- the voices of strangers, the words of a book, an unexpected phone call, a Christmas card. And suddenly, you get this heavenly Instant Message from God that rocks your world. You went to bed, thinking you had everything figured out, you had everything decent and in order, but you wake up with this incredible vision that you could never have come up with on your own. It's a Joseph Moment. Now, unlike Joseph, the salvation of humanity probably won't rest on your decision. It's important to keep these things in perspective. But it could be that the results of a Joseph Moment will be just the thing to divert the trajectory of your life. It could be that God wants to send you a direction you never would have chosen on your own.

God wants to send you a direction. Think about that. God wanted to send Joseph a direction, and I believe God wants to send you a direction, too. What does that mean, God wants to send you a direction? "Direction" is a funny word. It can mean direction as in, follow the directions. Such as, "O, bring us some figgy pudding and bring it right here." (The most demanding of Christmas carols.) That's direction as in rules you must follow to do something right or to avoid punishment. But, direction can also mean the general direction you're headed. As in, "college." Or, "to find myself." Or, "retirement." Or, "oblivion." That's direction as in life path. We all know people who have no "direction." They might be able to follow directions pretty well, but they're not able to come up with direction, or some purpose, some point for what they do. On that night of dreaming, Joseph was given some directions by the angel, but more than that, he was given direction. Joseph chose a direction that night for his life, and for all our lives. I believe it's the same for all of us. God wants to send us directions. That's why we have the Bible; that's why we have the church; that's why we have rules of conduct and a general sense of decency and order. But I believe more than that, God wants to send us direction; God wants to send us in a direction that benefits not just our personal sense of achievement, but a direction that benefits the people around us, and maybe even the world. In other words, God wants your life to have purpose. God wants your life to have meaning. God wants you to be able to look back some day and say, "I may not have been famous, may not have been rich, may not have even done much right, but by the grace of God my life has meant something." God wants you to be able to say, "By the grace of God, I was used by God to achieve some greater good." To get that sense of divine direction, you have to do more than just follow the rules; you have to listen to the angels.

I often wonder what might have been going through Joseph's mind on the night when Christ was born. So much has been said about Mary and her connection to the Christ Child; I wonder what Joseph thought. I wonder how Joseph felt when he looked at this infant. Was he scared by the baby? Did he feel a sense of sacrifice? Did he feel the burden of responsibility? Did he beam with pride and joy?
Did he see the baby as a stranger? Or did he look at the child's face and feel as though he'd seen it somewhere before? In a dream, perhaps?

When you think of the grown-up Christ who has adopted the relatively infant you as a sister or a brother, and a friend -- what do you think He feels when He looks at your face? Does he feel shame or regret for the choices he made on your behalf? Does he beam with pride and joy? Does he squint to make out the face of a stranger he vaguely remembers seeing somewhere? Maybe in a dream?

Today we lit the candle of love. Love. Love goes beyond the drama, and the melodrama, of our social conflicts. Love goes beyond the worry of what the relatives and neighbors might think. Love sees through the pale excuse of blind obedience to the rules. Love dreams. Love believes. Love gives us direction. Love gives us direction through the murky present and to a future unknown. The Apostle Paul wrote, "But now we see through a glass dimly; then we shall see face to face." The dream of Christ doesn't come true; the dream of Christ is true. The dream of Christ is true as it's seen in your face, in your actions, and in your heart. In a way, I suppose you could say Joseph didn't dream of the baby; the baby dreamed of Joseph, of Joseph opening his heart, his home, his life to a tiny child he didn't yet know. The Word of God dreamed. And the dream became real.

The Apostle John wrote, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.... And the Word [the Dream] became flesh [became real] and dwelt among us." (John 1:1, 14)

As the boy Jesus grew, Joseph the man must have given him directions on how to do certain things. Here's how you hold a hammer. Here's how you drive a nail. Ironically, the child had already given Joseph direction to his life, direction far more valuable than any day's lessons. All because of a dream. And a choice.

God wants to send you a direction. God wants to give you a dream. God wants to give you meaning and purpose and love. God puts each of us in Joseph's shoes. What direction will your choice lead you?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Luke 1:47-55 Dreams (Part 2): How the World Should Be
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)
Sunday, December 16, 2007

If you're under the age of, say, 16, or if you have kids, particularly if you have daughters in that demographic, you're familiar with these words...

Living in my own world
Didn't understand
That anything can happen
When you take a chance
I never believed in
What I couldn't see
I never opened my heart
To all the possibilities

(Can anyone tell me the next line? And the name of the song is? "Start of Something New." And who sings it? Troy and Gabriella. And the song is from? "High School Musical (1)").

If you haven't seen the Disney Channel's original movie, "High School Musical," or if you haven't seen all the posters advertising it and its creatively titled sequel, "High School Musical 2," you are just so yesterday. Any of you remember the musical, "Grease"? Any of you remember the movies with Andy Rooney (I mean), Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland where they were always putting on shows? High School Musical is the latest update. Disney thought they were making a cute, clean, family-oriented little movie, and it turned into a media juggernaut, spawning lunch boxes, T-shirts, posters and real-life high school musicals about "High School Musical." It's good to know something cute, clean, and family-oriented can still be popular.

For about as long as there have been stage productions, there have been musicals. The characters talk for a while, but when something really important is going to be said, they burst into song. It's not the most realistic way of getting the point across. I rarely break into song in the normal course of a working day, and I imagine it's the same for you. ("May I have FRIES with that... please?" This could be considered abnormal behavior.) So, with musicals, there's this touch of other-worldliness, a sense of whimsy, a built-in yearning for a different reality.

Which brings us to musical language of scripture today. Linda read the song of Mary - I suppose I could have asked her to sing it - she read the song of Mary, accompanied to music, for a reason. It IS music. It's the music of a woman, the music of an expectant mother. If you look in your Bible, you'll see that the scripture really is a song, plunked down in the middle of the story of Mary and Elizabeth and their expectations for their yet-to-be born children, John the Baptist and Jesus. The dialog builds and builds until Mary speaks, and when she does speak her very first words about her baby, when she speaks her first words about Jesus, she doesn't just talk, she sings. Think about what's happening here. There OUGHT to be music playing behind her. There ought to be a heavenly orchestra coming down from heaven, music swelling with emotion as she hits the high notes, the highest notes of her dream for this baby. What Mary sings are THE highest notes of God's dream for the Son of God Almighty. Mary sings God's highest notes for how the world should be. So, in this high point of a moment when heaven reaches forth to touch the earth, when God's plan pours forth from Mary's lips, it's done through music, through a song. And with this song, Mary sings in harmony with God about the start of something new.

Mary sings, "My soul magnifies the Lord." Right there is a signal that something new is starting. Because when you think about the arrangement, it would seem more logical to expect God to do the magnifying. God - should magnify Mary's spirit, not the other way around. God - should take that little spark of divinity deep within her humanity, and make it shine. Isn't that the way we think about the deal? We find faith in God and God makes us better people. God's creativity in this song, though, is that Mary's soul magnifies God. She says, "for He has been mindful of the humble state of his servant." God doesn't change Mary's state. Instead, Mary, in her lowliness, expands our concept of God. God doesn't favor the blessed. God doesn't reward the saintly. If good stuff happens to you, it's not because God loves you more. No, Mary is living proof that God is magnified, God is bigger, than our puny human conceptions of cause and effect, action and reward. Mary, lowly little Mary shows that God can - and God does - work through anyone, even and especially the least of these. This is not how the world should be; this is how God is. How the world should be is cognizant of what it regards as throwaway people. God is bigger, much, much bigger, than the good people who go to church on Sunday and put money in the Salvation Army pot. God is magnified by the people who receive the pennies from the bottom of the pot, Mary being exhibit number one. Mary is how the world should be. This IS the start of something new.

She sings, "He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; (what mighty deeds?) he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones.... he has sent the rich away empty."

Again, if this is how the world should be, this is the start of something new. Mary may not have had time to watch the news, but this is NOT the way the world worked back in her time, and it's not the way the world works now. Fortune favors the powerful. Her song hits a sour note, at least in the ears of those living - or wanting to live - the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Champagne wishes and caviar dreams? No, ma'am. Not in God's song. The way God's song goes, if you're proud, God will confuse your inmost thoughts. There's some creative justice. If you're arrogant and mean, God won't smite you; God will confuse you. If you're rich and powerful, God won't destroy you; God will scoot that throne right out from under you. If you're obnoxiously fat and happy, God will help you understand emptiness, first-hand. Again, this song is something new.

Mary sings, "But he has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things." You might wonder, is Mary singing about herself? In her lowly estate, is she the one lifted up? In her hunger for dignity and worth, is she the one now filled with good things even as her womb is filled with this unborn child? Maybe Mary is singing because she's living proof that God will fulfill the promise to lift up the humble and fill the hungry.

Especially at Christmas, we get reminded that there are a lot of humble, hungry people out there. The Salvation Army, places like the Volunteer Ministry Center, and groups like our own Missions Committee are singing Mary's song when they remind us that so many hungry people still need our help. In today's world, Mary's song sounds like the bells ringing on the street corner, like a check being ripped from its book, and like the percussive thump of a food basket on the floor. You hear these sounds all the time this time of year, but rarely do we connect the notes to the music. When the proud are brought down an octave, and when the lowly are pitched higher, we hear Mary, singing, singing still, magnifying God, starting something new.

If life really was a musical, how would it sound? A couple of weeks ago, on one of the warm days, I had the windows to my office open. There was a guy jogging around the path. He had his iPod on his arm, his headphones in his ears. Most everyone who goes around the path does so with their own, private music collection providing a soundtrack for their sweat. But unlike the other joggers and walkers, this guy was singing along, singing LOUDLY beneath his earphones. I'd be sitting at my desk and I could hear him coming, around by the basketball goal. By the time he got to my window, it was like a winded Michael Bolton was squeezing out the lyrics. And then by the miracle of the Doppler Effect, he would fade around the front of the building. Until the next lap. And the song would rise again. I don't think he realized what he was doing. Maybe he did. If he had ever listened to someone else jog and sing at the same time, I doubt he would consciously choose to try it himself. But even though he was a bit - OK, very - off-key, even though he might not have known what he was doing, the guy was having a great time. He was singing like he was the only person in the world. He was singing as if his life was a musical, running in circles, around a church.

Singing, out loud, is a bold act. It takes guts to sing in public, especially if you're the only one singing. If you burst into song at Wal-Mart, they'll probably call Security. Singing, when the rest of the world is mute, is either a little crazy, or a little defiant. But, like that singing-jogging guy, if all you hear is the sound of a song that lifts your soul, a song that magnifies the Lord, if the song of Christ is what's filling your heart and mind, if this musical dream of how the world OUGHT to be has taken hold, you'd be crazy not to sing. It really doesn't matter if you can't carry a tune in a bucket. What matters is that you let the song take over. What matters is that you sing along.

But be careful. Mary's song isn't from a high school musical. God's song isn't about falling in love and having happy endings. God's song is about being loved, and about just endings, fair endings. If you find yourself singing Mary's song, you might find yourself feeling as lowly and humble as she did. You might feel as if you're out of tune with the rest of the world. And you may well be. The good news is Mary was out of tune, too. And the Spirit of the Lord dwelt within her.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44

Dreams (Part 1): The Future

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

December 2, 2007

Isaiah 2:1-5

2:1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

2:2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.

2:3 Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

2:4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

2:5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Matthew 24:36-44

24:36 "But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

24:37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

24:38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark,

24:39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.

24:40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.

The theme for the sermons this month is, "Dreams." Particularly, Christmas Dreams. I think Christmas is a time when people do a lot of dreaming. If you're a kid, a lot of your dreams have to do with toys. If you're a fan of Bing Crosby, you're dreaming of a "White Christmas." Notice how the song doesn't say, "I'm wishing for" a White Christmas. Or, "I'm praying for" a White Christmas. It's all about the dreams, Christmas dreams.

The Bible has dreams, too. Over this month, we're going to be reading some of the Bible's Christmas Dreams. The people of Bible times might not have known they were having Christmas Dreams, but they were. People like the Prophet Isaiah, Mother Mary and Father Joseph... even Jesus himself had dreams of how things would be when Christ came en masse to earth, whether that meant the first time, or the second time, or in ruling majesty, or in a lowly manger. We know, in retrospect, that the Bible is filled with dreams of how the future will be, how the world should be, and how we should be because of the Advent of Jesus Christ.


Dream with me for a minute. Dream with me about how your house would look if you actually had all the time, energy and money you needed to decorate for Christmas the way you've always wanted. How would your house look? How would it smell? What would you be hearing? What would be different in the Christmas of your dreams? In my imagination, I've always pictured the proper mode of Christmas transportation is a horse-drawn sleigh. The world would be a better place if every Christmas we all abandoned our cars and rode around in one-horse open sleighs. You just can't be irritated at relatives who drop in unexpectedly if they're singing sleighing songs and laughing all the way. "Sure, Cousin Ed, put the horse in the garage and bring all thirteen kids in for some hot cider and fruitcake." If they pulled up in a backfiring RV, you'd turn out the lights and hide in the basement. Get a sleigh to drive this Christmas. That's my contribution to world peace.

It's easy to dream of Christmases just like the ones you used to know, or the Christmases you'd like to know. It's too easy. Because everywhere you turn, every TV show you watch, every magazine or newspaper you pick up, every store you shop in - are all reminding you that not only should you dream, but that it's good to dream of that perfect, ideal Christmas. And then it's really good to spend a lot of money making your dreams come true. So, you've got these Christmas dreams... and then you've got Christmas reality. I think a good portion of the anxiety some people feel at Christmas has to do with the size of the gap between the dreams and the reality. The bigger the gap, the harder this time of year is.

Unfortunately, and despite our best intentions, I think the church isn't a whole lot of help. You come to church during Advent (better known as, "The Christmas Season,") and what happens? We tell you, "No, you're wrong. It's not the Christmas Season. The Christmas Season is after Christmas. This is Advent. You're going to sing Advent Carols, even though there are only two good ones (both of which we're singing today and then it's Christmas Carols from here on out)." You come to Church wanting to hear hope, peace, love and joy, and what scriptures do we read? John the Baptist, hollering "You brood of vipers!" There's a jolly old saint. This year, we skip John the Baptist, and run straight ahead to the Rapture, where two will be in the field and one will be taken and one will be left behind. Somebody get us some Prozac.

But it's not all bad news and unsingable hymns. We also get to read scripture like Isaiah 2, which says, "they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore." That's good news. With soldiers stuck in Iraq for who knows how long, with so many terrible people in the world doing terrible things, it's good to hear that peace not only has a chance, it will win. But when? How long, O Lord, how long? Have you been watching the news, Lord? The gap between even the Bible's dreams of Christmas - the prophesies of the coming and rule of Christ - the gap between even the Bible's dreams and earthly reality - can be a source of anxiety.

Ironically, another one of the reasons the church causes people anxiety is because church people (such as myself) labor under the very non-Biblical belief that we're supposed to have an answer for everything. And we do this with the best of intentions. We try to take away people's anxiety by giving them assurances, whether we understand what we're talking about or not. We say, here's what scripture means, exactly. Here's the answer to this situation, exactly. Sometimes we get it right. But a lot of the time, we're relying on someone else's answers, which came from someone else, which came from someone else and has become the accepted "right answer." For instance, the Rapture. Two are working, one will be taken, and one will be left behind. One verse of scripture. It comes in the context of Jesus himself explaining that he has no idea what the future will look like, or when the time will come, when God establishes the kingdom of heaven on earth. Good, churchy people have taken this one verse of scripture, in which Jesus is trying to say, "I have no idea how or when the kingdom is going to come," and turned a dream of Christ's Second Coming into a hard and fast, literal explanation of something not even Jesus could explain. And then, instead of feeling happy with the answer, people get even more anxious because they start worrying, "Am I going to be one of the ones taken? Or am I going to be left behind?" Which leads to churches giving hard and fast, step-by-step rules of how you can know for sure that you'll be taken. But what if you forget one of the rules? Well then, there are more rules. Then more anxiety. And the whole thing swirls into a death spiral caused by trying to explain something not even Jesus could explain. If you're smart enough to explain Jesus' dreams of the future better than he could, good for you.

Instead, Jesus leaves us in that gap of anxiety. He refuses to take it away. Maybe because he knew that a little anxiety is good for us, and that trying too hard to take it away, paradoxically, only makes us more anxious. Jesus says, in essence, "I don't know - and it's not good for anyone to know - when Christmas is going to come in completeness." A little anxiety is good for us. A little anxiety keeps us sharp, keeps us watching for the signs. Jesus leaves us with that anxiety. But he doesn't leave us alone. Instead of giving us a literal roadmap to the future, he gives us hope. Instead of a timeline, he gives us dreams. He doesn't tell us how we'll beat our swords into plowshares, he doesn't tell us how the lions will lie down with the lambs, he just tells us that we will, they will. Jesus gives us the promise that someday - maybe someday very soon, maybe a long time from now - he doesn't know when - someday, God will make the hope, peace, joy and love of Christmas come... and stay here... forever. It will happen. How do we know this? Because this is God's dream - for our future. Unlike our human dreams, God's dreams will come true. How do we know? Because the Bible tells us so.


I would never, ever tell you to compromise on your dreams for the perfect Christmas. Unless your dreams are driving you crazy. Or driving crazy the people who have to live with you obsessing over finding THE perfect, inflatable lawn ornament. In that case, I might say it would be better to live with a little anxiety than to cause everyone more by trying too hard to bridge the gap between your dreams and reality. Dreams give us hope. Dreams keep us alert. Dreams keep us looking toward a better future. The prophet Isaiah had dreams. Even Jesus had dreams of how the future should and will be. Neither Isaiah nor Jesus explained the mechanics of their dreams. They just had them, and held onto them.

Instead of dreaming of solutions, dream of hope. Instead of dreaming of perfection, dream of peace. Instead of happiness for a day, dream of joy. Instead of flawless people, dream of love. Light a candle in your heart for each of those dreams, and I guarantee you - you will see the kingdom of God, maybe on Christmas Day, or maybe all year long.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

2007-11-18 Isaiah 65:17-25 “Yours and Mine”

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

In the sermons these past weeks, we’ve been talking about one word – “mine” – and how it relates both to scripture and to stewardship.

This week, the title is “Yours and Mine,” and draws from the prophesy of Isaiah in chapter 65, verses 17-25.

Last week, the prophet was Haggai, from around the year 520 BC, arguing for the physical reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

This week, the prophet is Isaiah, arguing a couple of years after Haggai, for spiritual reconstruction.

Isaiah wants the whole city, the whole community to be reconstructed.

Haggai wanted a place, a Temple, where the people could go to see glory; Isaiah wants a whole city, a whole world, where everything is glory.

What would make your life… glorious?

I thought about this question last week.

I made a list, not to share, but as reference material, in case someone in real power – God, Anderson Cooper – should ever ask.

I realized most of the items on my list involve someone else NOT doing something.

Or something NOT happening.

For example, the girl in line in front of me in Krystal NOT talking on her cell phone while trying to place a complicated order, like, a bag of 10, with cheese, no onion.

You have no idea how much longer this order takes when you’re simultaneously arguing with your boyfriend.

I’ve noticed a lot of doctors’ offices now have signs that say, “Please do not talk on your cell phone while the doctor is examining you.”

I agree this would make the doctors’ lives better, maybe even a little glorious, especially if they’re dentists.

Anyway my list of things has a lot of “thou shalt not’s,” kind of like the original Ten Commandments, but more lengthy.”

I’m guessing your list would, too.

We spend so much time dealing with irritations and annoyances, or buying things to distract ourselves from them.

We get so used to being annoyed at annoying things or annoying people that we delude ourselves into thinking all it would take to make life glorious is some sort of big, red zapper button to make them all go away, or at least put them on “mute.”

Then, with all the other irritations removed, we could concentrate on the really important things in life, like, ourselves.

The problem with this scenario, or at least the most prominent one of several, is that if everyone had their own big, red irritation-zapper button, it wouldn’t take long for the human population to reduce itself back to Adam and Eve, and then pretty soon, just Eve.

Glory based on the absence of annoyance isn’t glory; it’s lonely.

Taken to the extreme, our twentieth century, North American visions of glory are both lonely and selfish.

Listen to the news.

The underlying message so much of the time is, “Life would be just glorious, if it weren’t for the…” you fill in the blank.

The Iranians.

The Pakistanis.

The Bush Administration.

The Democrats.

O. J. Simpson.

And while it’s especially hard to argue with the last one, the list and its tone shows how far we’ve sunk into the hole of equating glory with the absence of irritating devices, people, regimes and celebrities.

We’re like children who think that if they can just fish all the lima beans out of their vegetable soup, then it’ll be worthy of consumption.

So when we hear prophesy of a new Jerusalem – a new city, a new church – like the prophesy of Isaiah’s today, it all sounds a bit too glorious to believe.

Isaiah isn’t just promising that God will pick out all the annoying lima beans from Israel’s life.

Isaiah says God’s going to replace the soup entirely.

Instead of merely a life free of irritations, God’s going to bring Jerusalem, and us with it, a rich banquet of life so abundant, so truly and completely glorious that not only the irritations, but the part of us that gets irritated at the irritations will be zapped away, gone.

In Isaiah’s vision of glory, it’s not just that the things on our lists WON’T happen, it’s that God will take away the need for the list entirely.

Listen to how revolutionary Isaiah is:

I [God] am creating new heavens

and a new earth;

everything of the past

will be forgotten.

there will be no more crying

or sorrow in that city.

No child will die in infancy;

everyone will live

to a ripe old age.

Anyone a hundred years old

will be considered young,

and to die younger than that

will be considered a curse.

My people will live

in the houses they build;

they will enjoy grapes

from their own vineyards.

No one will take away

their homes or vineyards.

My chosen people will live

to be as old as trees,

and they will enjoy

what they have earned.

Their work won't be wasted,

and their children won't die

of dreadful diseases.

I will bless their children

and their grandchildren.

I, the LORD, have spoken!

Two things in particular strike me about Isaiah’s vision from God.

First, it totally bypasses the annoyances of life.

Surely there must have been annoyances, just as there are in any society, or any family, where people live in close quarters for more than fifteen minutes.

Let this knowledge temper your expectations for Thanksgiving gatherings.

God just skips right over anything even slightly resembling the trivial.

Anything that would end up making us lonely, or fueling our selfishness, doesn’t even cross God’s mind.

Instead, God deals with the real crud.

In the new creation, there will be no sorrow, no crying, not because sorrow and crying are bad, per se, but because the things that make for real sorrow, things that make us weep, will be gone.

Things like, children dying too young, old people living without livelihood.

Things like property seizures, and seeing your life’s work add up to nothing.

Instead, God says, your children and your grandchildren will enjoy your glory, and be blessed.

In other words, your life will mean something, not just to you, but to your community and to future generations.

This is glory on God’s scale.

The other thing that strikes me about Isaiah’s vision from God is that it’s written entirely in the plural.

God’s blessing isn’t spoken to an individual, or even a collection of individuals, who read it in their own Bibles, or watched it on their own TVs, or downloaded it to their own iPods.

If God’s blessing of glory comes to one person, it comes to everyone.

In Isaiah’s vision of heavenly glory on earth, there is no yours and mine, in that there’s nothing that is mine without also being yours.

Glory is shared.

Not sharing is not an option.

Glory that isn’t freely and equally shared isn’t glory, at least not in God’s recipe book.

Only when everyone thrives, only then is there true glory.

At Thanksgiving, we have this glorious vision of Pilgrims and Native Americans sitting down together at long, wooden picnic tables, feasting on turkey and brown gravy, roasted corn and apple pies.

I don’t know how historically accurate that vision is, but it’s a good start.

At Communion, we have this glorious vision of Pilgrims and Native Americans, Presbyterians and who-knows-what-else, sitting down together at a banquet feast around God’s heavenly table.

That’s an even better start, and, as we believe, our end as well.

Our vision of Communion can start with Isaiah, and be lifted up and expanded even more by Jesus, so that the picky differences between you and me, what’s yours and what’s mine, all gets zapped away and replaced by something more glorious.

Glory IS about the stewardship of us sharing and combining what’s yours and what’s mine.

But more, glory is the divine eraser that erases the line between what’s yours and what’s mine, what’s God’s and what’s the world’s.

Glory erases the irritating divisions and makes everything, “ours.”

If one prospers, we all prosper.

If one cries, we all cry.

If we thrive, God thrives, and so will our children and grandchildren.

At least, that’s the plan.

That’s the prophesy.

That’s the way God intends things to be, and how they ought to be, if we try to live according to God’s vision.

But again, look at the news.

Two thousand years and God seems to have gotten distracted.

The earth isn’t shared between the haves and the have nots.

There’s still war, disease, problems – and the lions and the lambs are showing no signs of lying down together.

God’s Stewardship plan isn’t exactly reaching its challenge goal.

I guess it’s lucky for God we’re not in charge, because if we were, God’s job security might be on the line.

Actually, I think it’s more the other way around.

I can imagine God looking at our annual reports and thinking, “I gave these people the plan a couple of thousand years ago.

What don’t they get?”

But instead of changing plans or downsizing the whole lot of us, God waits.

God sends subtle reminders that glory doesn’t usually arrive all at once.

God’s glory comes one bite at a time, one sip at a time, one person at a time, one church at a time.

But then, after a time of tasting the goodness of God’s plan, suddenly we wake up and realize we’re all sharing something with the same taste.

That quiet moment of realization is when glory – shared glory – becomes not just yours, not just mine, not even just God’s.

Glory becomes yours and mine.

And God says, “Yes. Glory be. They got it.”

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Gold Mine

"Gold Mine"

Haggai 1:15b-2:9

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The sermons for November aren't really a series as much as they're an exploration of scripture through the lens of one word. Mine. Last week’s title was "Mine Field," and we talked about the “field of mine” that surrounds us. Next Sunday, it's "Yours and Mine." Today, the theme is “Gold Mine.”

If your financial advisor - whether that's a professional or your oldest child who handles your bills now - told you that you were sitting on a gold mine, what would you think? You'd think that you had some secret source of fantastic wealth. If I told you that you were sitting IN a gold mine, what would you think? Would you check under the pew cushions to see what treasure you might find? Sorry, but I'm not Oprah, so you're going to have to find car keys somewhere else. Haggai the prophet told Israel they needed a gold mine, they needed to sit IN a gold mine, and that God had a gold mine they needed to find.

We’re reading today from the Prophet Haggai. OK, quick, how many of you had ever heard of the prophet Haggai before this morning? How many of you could find his book in the Bible? It’s in the H-Z-H-Z pattern almost at the end of the Old Testament. The H-Z’s. Stands for “Heavy Z’s,” right? Just before the end of the Old Testament, there are four rarely-touched books whose names start with H, then Z, H, then Z. Habakkuk, Zephaniah; Haggai, Zechariah. God made the names rhyme so they’d be easier to remember. But then, there’s Malachi, the final end book of the Old Testament, who blows the H-Z-H-Z pattern. God could have picked a guy named Howard, but no. Prophesy isn’t easy.

Nobody knows much biographical information on Haggai. He delivered this collection of prophesies over a four-month period in 520BC. The Israelites had been living in exile under the Babylonian Empire, and then under the Persian Empire. The Persians decided they’d had enough of the Israelites and let them return to their native homeland. (This is made somewhat more historically interesting when you realize that the Persian Empire is mainly what we now call, Iran. The Iranians granted the Israelites freedom and allowed them to rebuild their homeland. How times change, in two-thousand, five hundred short years.)

The Israelites went back to their homeland, to the land God had promised them, to the land the Iranians had given them. The Israelites went back, and… started arguing. Life in the new-old country of Israel wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t easy. They had some wealth and independence, but it’s not as if they were all riding around with those little round stickers on the rear-ends of their camels that said, “Life is Good.” Life was… OK. It wasn’t slavery or exile, but it was farming in the Middle East, which has to be something like surfing in Iowa. When Stewardship Season came around, there wasn't a lot of extra change. There was a little extra, but not much. So, the people of Israel had to decide, are we going to keep the money to ourselves, or are we going to do something else? Something else like, rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, the holiest temple in the holiest place on earth? This created years of discussion among the people for whom life was better.

This, in a nutshell, is the landscape of little-known Haggai's four months of prophesy. Haggai argued - successfully - that God should have a house, too. In fact, God should have a beautiful house. But here's the thing: Haggai didn't argue that God should have a beautiful house because God needs to be made to look more beautiful. God has the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, the mountains in springtime. There's not much a human being could construct that would be more beautiful, or even as beautiful as these. Haggai argued that God should have a beautiful, inspiring holy place, not because God needs to be more beautiful, holy and inspiring; Haggai said God should have such a house because the people need something beautiful, holy and inspiring. Haggai describes the people of Israel as hard-working, but also as kind of self-centered and dull. The people were doing their work, going out and coming in, locking the doors behind them, and crashing until the next morning. They needed a lift. They needed a center. They needed a center for their lives. They needed a center that would hold their souls, stimulate their minds, and inspire their hearts to dream great dreams. They needed a Temple.

God's word came to Haggai, and God said,

'Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? 4 But now be strong.... Be strong, all you people of the land,' declares the LORD, 'and work. For I am with you,' declares the LORD Almighty. 5 'This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.'

6 "This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. 7 I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,' says the LORD Almighty. 8 'The silver is mine and the gold is mine,' declares the LORD Almighty. 9 'The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,' says the LORD Almighty. 'And in this place I will grant peace,' declares the LORD Almighty."

As Presbyterian Protestants, we know that a church is not a building. We say it that way, but we know it's not. We get in the car on Sunday morning and say, "I'm going to church today." But we know that's not exactly right. We know the church isn't the building, or the sanctuary, or the Fellowship Hall, or even the big, comfy sofas in the Senior High room. Because those are things, and the church isn't a thing. The church is a who. The church is the people inside the building. Some churches have no buildings. Some churches have veritable temples, and spend more on air conditioning than most families earn in a year. We know the church is not a building.

But we also know that the church's building is a symbol of the people who are the church. I think you can tell a lot about a congregation by looking at their building, especially the sanctuary, the holy area, the "temple." How does it look? Some sanctuaries look as though angels with ironing boards descend every Monday morning to press the paraments and rub away any hint of human fingerprint from the furniture. Some sanctuaries are dank and dusty, smelling of the combined aroma of a hundred years of dry-skinned worshipers. These days, a lot of sanctuaries look like convention centers, with projection screens and audio equipment that U2 would be proud of. Chances are, the worship space is the way it is because the people like it that way. It's a symbol of the church. What does our sanctuary say about us? Sorry to mention this, but the room is kind of square. Welcome to Presbyterian-land. But here's the good thing. It's square, but it's turned on its side. And what do you get when you turn a square on its side? A diamond. The difference between a square and a diamond is in how tilted it is, or how tilted the person looking is. We may look square, but we're really kind of tilted. And I mean that in the best possible way.

God promises through Haggai that God is going to take the square, boring, self-centered people of Israel, and restore their glory. But more. God's going to bring them glory - and peace - greater than ever before. It may take a long time. It might look as though God is slow and the people are slower. But, God says, the silver is mine, the gold is mine. Even you dull, square people who need to be stood on your ears, says God, you're mine, too.

The other week, I had one of those days where I felt as though I was just lost in the vast wasteland between here and there. I got up early and kept going from one place to the next, in order to check things off my list. I got things done. I was sort of proud of the accomplishments. The Saudi Arabians would have been proud of me for using so much gas to do it all. I consider it my little contribution to the good of the global economy. But by the end of the day, I had to look at my list to remember what I had done, and all the places I'd been. If my day had a center, it was my to-do list, which when it was all marked off, I wadded up and threw away. So much for that day's lasting impression on history. The day had a crumpled piece of paper. No silver, no gold, no diamonds. It was just a square, average day spent somewhere between here and there by a square, middle-aged guy, growing rounder all the time. I needed a sanctuary. I needed a temple. I needed a sacred space and a guy like Haggai to grab me by the collar and put his nose up at mine and say, "Look, you hypnotized hamster in a wheel. God didn't create you for this. God created you with glory. You are golden. You belong to God and God loves you. Don't let the symbol of your days be a pile of crumpled to-do lists in the floor of your car's backseat."

Diamonds are squares until they're tilted on their sides. Gold is just a rock until the light of the sun hits it. Sometimes we have to be shown what the valuable looks like before we realize how much value we're sitting on. Sometimes we have to be reminded what's valuable before we realize the stuff of value is already woven into the helix of our DNA. We all need a holy space, a temple, to remind us that God intends us to be holy temple kind of people. For a lot of us, we're sitting in that holy space, right now. If this sanctuary reminds you that you belong to God and God loves you, and not just you, but all of you, then this particular temple has done its job.

One of the things that separates Haggai from Jesus, though, is that while Haggai worked to build up the temple, Jesus got in trouble for saying he could tear it down in three days. And everyone thought, "What? Are you crazy?" Haggai thought in terms of literal diamonds, literal silver, and literal gold. Jesus, on the other hand, was more about transformation. Jesus was more about taking the square, boring people themselves, and tilting them, and then holding them up to the mirror of himself, so that they could see the diamonds hidden in their shape. After his resurrection, as his last parting gift to his disciples, Jesus gave them the Holy Spirit. He gave his followers the "Temple" Spirit. He made the gold portable - personal, but shared. Jesus gave us the Temple Spirit, so that wherever we are, we can see the shining light of God's value, bouncing off our skin, reflecting off our relationships, bringing meaning to our days.

We may or may not be sitting ON a gold mine. But we are sitting IN one. Or, rather, the gold mine is sitting in US. We, individually, but even more together, are shining testimony to Haggai's prophesy. It may take a long time to see. It might look as though God is slow and we're slower. But, God says, the silver is mine, the gold is mine. Even you dull, square people who need to be stood on your ears, says God, you're mine, too.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Mine Field

2007-11-04 "Mine Field"

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 and Luke 19:1-10

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

The sermons for November aren't really a series as much as they're an exploration of scripture through the lens of one word. Mine. Today's title is "Mine Field." Next Sunday, it's "Gold Mine," and the following will be "Yours and Mine." I say this starting off because a lot of times we forget both how powerful and how complex just one word can be. We forget how even more powerful and complex words can be, when they’re words of faith. A word that means one thing to you might mean something different to me, simply because I grew up on a different side of the world, different side of town, or a different side of the tracks. Especially when we say words of faith - words like, “Jesus,” “God,” “devil” - there are meanings and shades of meaning that you hear and I won't, mental images that'll pop into your brain that are surprisingly different from the thoughts of even the people closest to you.

Plus, it's Stewardship Season, and the word, "Mine," seemed doubly appropriate. I'll tell you up front, during Stewardship Season, I will not use the sermons to ask you to increase your annual pledge. We've got a Stewardship Committee, they're doing a great job, and you don't need reruns from me. What I will do these next few weeks, and why I think these sermons are important, is to talk about that one little word, “mine.” How you understand that one little word makes all the difference in how you approach all your stewardship. But more than that -- Understanding that one, little word, "Mine," makes all the difference in how you approach everything.

The moment something becomes "mine" it becomes important. It becomes important to ME. To an extent, something that's "mine" is part of me. They're part of the field that defines me, my "mine field." My car, my house, my computer, my remote control... my disease, my friends, my world, my church... my life. How I treat what is mine... how you treat what is yours... whether we share, or take, or give or loan, or borrow - what we determine is ours and how we consider what is ours -- all of these questions are about both self-definition AND stewardship. On one level, Stewardship Season in the church is about planning for next year's budget. But on a deeper level, Stewardship Season is a chance to sit still and think about deeper questions, such as, "What IS mine and how am I going to treat it? What's mine and what's yours? What do we mean when we say, "Mine"?


In today’s scripture, Jesus is walking through a mine field. Not the kind of mine field that our soldiers in Iraq have to walk through. This one's a socially explosive mine field. I know some of you veterans have literally walked through physical mine fields. I know some of you have parents who lost limbs because they were brave enough to walk through mine fields to retrieve fallen soldiers. I saw a mine field, once, when I was on a trip to El Salvador. You know what it looked like? It looked beautiful. You could stand on a hillside by the edge of the village and look out over this verdant, green plain, with plants and flowers growing wild all over it. There was a river in the background. It looked like a postcard. It was very difficult for me to wrap my mind around that idea that if I were to step into this lovely garden of Eden, I wouldn’t step out again.

In today’s scripture, Jesus walks straight into a religious and social mine field. Unlike a military mines, the hair trigger of this mine field wasn't under the ground. Instead it was above the field, looking down from a sycamore tree. Zaccheus. The meanest man in town. A wee little man, with a wee little heart. Zacchaeus is evil, but he’s also comical.

As a person who’s somewhat vertically challenged myself, and as someone who sees a lot of children’s cartoons, I’d like to point out an injustice. Have you ever noticed how almost all of the evil, yet comical bad guys in cartoons are wee little men? The Chef in “Ratatouille,” Syndrome in “The Incredibles,” Lord Farquaad in “Shrek.” Elmer Fudd. This discrimination must end. I’d get off my soapbox, except that you wouldn’t be able to see me.

Back to the Bible. Here's Zacchaeus, the meanest, wee-ist man in town, being comical and undignified, climbing up a tree like a little boy in order to see Jesus. Jesus says, “Zacchaeus, hurry down! I want to stay with you today.” Now, remember, this is a society where hospitality and manners are of highest importance. I know if you’ve been to a restaurant lately, that’s hard to imagine. Hospitality and manners were crucial. Whose house you chose to stay in, whom you chose to eat a meal with, how well you were received – even if you were an enemy – these were the fabric that held together society. In America, we’re a nation of laws. The land of Jesus was a nation of manners.

So as he enters Jericho, a crowd forms to welcome the celebrity, Jesus. Flash bulbs are popping, reporters are pushing for position, people are lining up for public health care. But the unspoken question that everyone knew had yet to be answered was, “Whose house is Jesus going to stay in? Who gets the honor of showing him their best hospitality?”

Up in the tree. Monkey boy. Zacchaeus. The one man who enforces laws without a shred of hospitality, the wee-ist man with the wee-ist heart. This is who Jesus chooses? Jesus walks straight into this societal mine field. And sets it off. Why?

Zacchaeus ends up having a conversion experience. He swears to give half of his property to the poor, and to pay back four times as much to everyone he has ever cheated – and that’s a lot of people. What happened over dinner in Zacchaeus’ house that evening? What happened to Zacchaeus, when Jesus was sitting across the table from him? What changed in Zacchaeus’ mind? What melted in his Grinchy little heart? We don’t know. The Bible doesn’t say. But we do know the effect. Zacchaeus’ might not have grown in stature, but he did grow a conscience. And as his conscience grew, Zacchaeus’ personal “mine” field shrank.


The Bible makes Zaccheus a comical little guy. Like Yosemite Sam trying to steal the rabbit’s gold, he makes us laugh at the weakness of greed. If we were able to look from some vantage point of distance over our own beautiful little fields of “mine,” wouldn’t we have to laugh? If we had some tool to measure all the energy we put into building up our mine fields, and then protecting our mine fields, and keeping our mine fields from being taken by people like Zacchaeus – if there were some tool to measure all that energy (and maybe it’s called a blood pressure monitor), wouldn’t we either have to laugh or cry at the amount of time and hope and work we put into constructing what’s, “mine”?

They say you can’t have everything; where would you put it? And even if you did have everything, you sure can’t take it with you. Something about being chosen to show hospitality to Jesus shrinks the mine field around Zacchaeus. The evidence of hospitality turns Zacchaeus from a comic figure to a model of serious social conscience. Is there, anywhere in us, a lack of hospitality that we need to leave hanging in a tree? Is there, anywhere in us, a rip in the social fabric that makes us look laughable?

We each have around us an invisible force field made out of what we call, “mine.” That’s just a part of life; I don’t think it’s ever going to go away. But what we each have the power to choose is how wide we imagine this field to be. What we each have the power to choose is how loaded we make this mine field, what its barriers and preconditions for entry might be. What Zacchaeus teaches is that a sphere of influence built on hospitality is everlasting. After all, it’s been 2000 years and we’re still reading about him. Zacchaeus teaches us that a sphere of influence based on hospitality is infinitely more powerful than a mine field. Zacchaeus teaches us that as the mine field shrinks, the sphere of influence increases.

If you’re remembered 2000 years from now, how would you want to be remembered? For what you had the right to declare as “mine”? Or for your conversion to hospitality? That’s stewardship. And that’s the sermon for today.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

It Came From the Bible

2007-10-28 "It Came From the Bible"
1 Corinthians 15:51-58 and Ezekiel 37:1-14
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)
Sunday, October 28, 2007

If you want a really good ghost story, you don't have to watch a scary movie. You don't have to read Edgar Allan Poe. If you want to hear the best ghost stories of all time, all you have to do is pick up your Bible. Today we read two really great ghost stories. Ezekiel and the dry bones, and Paul's vision of graves opening and bodies rising in the air. This is spooky stuff. If Hollywood got hold of these ideas, they'd look like, "Night of the Living Dead," or "Re-Animator," or the classic and still the best horror movie of human ingenuity gone wrong, "Frankenstein." And yet, there's something different. These ghost stories in the Bible don't creep us out. Instead, they give us hope. The ghost stories in the Bible don't make us scream. Instead they make us sing. (Really. "Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones." Etc.) In the movies, the ghosts say, "Boo." In the Bible, faith says, "Boo," and scares the creepy stuff away. The Bible taunts death: "Death, where is thy victory? Death, where is thy sting?" The Bible says, "Boo!" dances on the graves of all the scary stuff.

What scares us?

Halloween has a bad reputation where churches are concerned. We're not afraid to let the kids dress up like zombies and any number of Disney characters, bob for apples and eat their weight in candy. We're not afraid to contribute our part to the roughly 5 billion dollars this country alone spends on celebrating the holiday. That doesn't scare us. What scares churches is actually using the "H-word." So, bowing to trends in political correctness, we've all had to rename our Halloween Carnivals, "Fall Festivals." We still let the kids dress up like witches and load up on candy, but it seems more wholesome. Ironically, "Halloween" is a Christian holiday, invented to replace the pagan fall festivals of Europe.

Another ghost story, this one about the ghost of Halloween's history.

Back 2000 years ago, the Celts of Western Europe celebrated their new year on November 1st. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with -- and often brought -- human death. The Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred.

On the night of October 31, they celebrated Samhain (sow-in), when it was believed the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. In addition to causing trouble, damaging crops, and toilet-papering trees, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for their priests, the Druids, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.

On Samhain, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic gods. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other's fortunes. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their home hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.

But then, around 43 A.D., the Romans took over Europe, and incorporated their own fall festivals into Samhain. One of these was the day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple, and so Samhain became a festival where you wore animal heads and skins - and bobbed for apples.

But by the 800s, Christianity had spread into the Celtic-Roman lands. In the seventh century, to replace the fall festivals, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 as All Saints' Day, a time to honor Christian saints and martyrs. In Europe the day was called All-hallowmas, or All-hallows. The fall festival, the night of Samhain, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.

Even later, in A.D. 1000, the church made November 2nd All Souls' Day, a day to honor the dead. It was celebrated much like Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, devils, Spiderman, and Disney Princesses. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints', All Saints', and All Souls', were called Hallowmas (similar to "Christmas").

[Information on Halloween taken from The History Channel's website.]

And while these days no one complains much about the commercialization of Halloween, somewhere along the way, the Christian holiday turned too creepy for a lot of Christians. Which is sad. Because the intent of Halloween and its ghost stories is much like the vision of Ezekiel. The intent of Halloween is to help us see beyond this frightening life, to point us beyond the darkness of death. The intent of Halloween is a ghost story that turns into a life story that says, "Boo!" to the things that scare us.


Over the centuries, as the church has awakened from All-hallows Eve, on All Saints' Day, it remembered the words of Paul. "O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?" These were words that no doubt echoed in the ears of martyrs and missionaries, the saints who sacrificed their lives to preach the good news of Jesus Christ.

And when disciples first heard these words, they may have raised their eyebrows and thought, "Hush! Be quiet before someone hears you!" But this ghost story is also a life story. A story of life beyond death. A story of resurrection and re-creation for people like you and me. A life story for everyone who faces the demons of illness, the devils of hopelessness, and the dark winter of death.

Halloween (and All Saints') is worth so much more than five billion dollars in annual holiday spending. Halloween is about so much more than being scared. All-hallows Eve, All-hallows, Halloween - whatever you call them - these holidays - these holy days - are here to make us remember our history... and our future.

Halloween's here to reassure us that the spirits of the saints who have gone before us are never gone away from us. The saints of this congregation, the saints of your own lives -- their goodness lives on, even though they may no longer be with us in the flesh. You - in your life - can dance on the grave of death. Because you know how the story ends. You know what resurrection promises. And that is not a ghost story. It's a life story.

And so we remember. We remember the ordinary men and women who by the grace of God have become saints, both in our hearts and in communion around God's heavenly table. We thank God that by the mystery of Resurrection they live and breathe again, in a new life. And we praise God for the promise that someday we'll join in that communion of saints... in a place where there are no tears and nothing, not even death, can scare us.

Let us pray.

Almighty God -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit --

It is truly right and our greatest joy
to give you thanks and praise,
eternal God, creator and ruler of the universe.
At your word the earth was made
and spun on its course among the planets.
Your hand formed us from the dust of the earth
and set us among all your creatures
to love and serve you.

Therefore we praise you,
joining our voices with angels and archangels
and with all the faithful of every time and place,
who forever sing to the glory of your name:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.

May we know Christ's redemptive love
and live a new life in him.
Help us who recognize our living Lord,
to see and serve him in all whose lives are broken.
Give us who are fed at his hand,
grace to share our bread with the hungry
and with the hungry of heart.
Keep us faithful in your service
until Christ comes in final victory,
and we shall feast with all your saints
in the joy of your eternal realm.

Through Christ,
all glory and honor are yours, almighty Father,
with the Holy Spirit in the holy church,
now and forever.


[Prayer adapted from Book of Common Worship, Great Communion, Easter 1]

Thursday, October 18, 2007

God Is Better Than That

Luke 18:1-8 “God is Better Than That”

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Prayer. What would you expect the preacher to say to you about prayer? That it’s good, right? That you should do it, right? That even if your prayers aren’t answered, you should keep praying, and keep praying, and keep praying. Right? Those are the kind of things you’d expect to hear in church, the things you’d expect a preacher to say. So when you hear a passage of scripture where Jesus tells his disciples about the importance of prayer, the predictable response is that we’ll all just switch our brains into autopilot, and nod and smile at the appropriate time. Nod and smile, nod and smile, and he’ll let us out of here early. Why is that so predictable? Because we know the destination before we ever set out on the journey. There might be some suspense in some sermons (like, where in the world is he with this?), but when the scripture’s about the importance of prayer, we know how it’s going to end. Prayer’s important, and you should never give up – The End. Let’s go to lunch.

And I would guess the same is true, if not even moreso, for the disciples who heard Jesus give this short sermon about prayer. (You know, one thing you can always say about Jesus’s sermons – they’re almost always really short. OK, so he had one fault. Nobody’s perfect.) If we kind of glaze over when we hear about prayer in church, imagine how the disciples felt. They were always seeing Jesus wander off to some deserted place to pray. Of course he thought it was important, and that they should keep on doing it. Of course Jesus was going to say that.

So if Jesus, the preacher, had been paying attention, he’d have known he really didn’t need to say what he said that day. Because the disciples knew the answer before he ever asked the question. So why did he lecture these good, church-going disciples about the importance of prayer? Is it because he knew something they didn’t? Maybe. But it could also have been precisely because they knew so much about prayer already, that they knew so much about what Jesus was going to say, and what the Bible had already said about prayer – maybe it was because they knew the answers so well that Jesus wanted them to hear not the answer, but the questions, one more time.

What good is prayer? How much do you pray? Why should you keep praying when you keep praying and nothing ever changes?


Jesus tells a story.

In a town there was once a judge who didn't fear God or care about people. (The guy’s a classic grumpy old man.) In that same town there was a widow who kept going to the judge and saying, "Make sure that I get fair treatment in court." (In other words, the woman was trying to make the judge do what scripture says he should do. It’s not just for herself that she’s haranguing the judge, although that may be her motivation, we don’t know. Whether the widow knows it or not, she’s trying to get Grumpy to obey God’s law that says to be fair to widows and orphans, essentially, defend the rights of the people who have no rights.) For a while the judge refused to do anything. Finally, he said to himself, "Even though I don't fear God or care about people, I will help this widow because she keeps on bothering me. If I don't help her, she will wear me out."

Now, bear in mind that this grumpy old judge isn’t helping this woman out of the goodness of his heart. As far as we know, he has no goodness. He’s a caricature. He’s a caricature of the stereotypical City Hall councilman who pays attention to the big campaign contributors, but ignores the people in the projects. He’s a caricature of the parent who yells at the kids, “Can’t you see I’m busy right now? Get the lady across the street to help you with your homework.” Or, “If you’re really hurt, call Rural/Metro. I don’t have time to take you to the emergency room again. C’mon, I’m reading the Bible right now. This is my quiet time. If you’re still bleeding in half an hour, come back.” Who of us hasn’t been there, right? Sooner or later you realize, this kid, this spouse, this parent, this employee, this constituent – this lady who wants equal rights – isn’t going to give up. It’s easier to just give in and give them what they want than to keep putting them off.

Now, you have felt that way, haven’t you? “Oh, all right.” It’s a feeling of, what? Ultimately, it’s a feeling of surrender. But you’ve probably been on the other side of one of these negotiations, too, haven’t you? Maybe it’s your parents, maybe it’s the insurance company, maybe it’s the government. You keep at them and keep at them and – finally – they get so tired of you calling every day and dogging them that they give in, and give you what you want. How do you feel then? “Yessss! I won!” It’s a serious feeling of victory. You are triumphant because you stood up for yourself and would not take no for an answer. Yeah! You go!

Here’s the point of comparison where it’s really easy to make a mistake interpreting this scripture. A lot of times, I think, people read this passage and they come away comparing God to the grumpy judge. A lot of times, I think people come away thinking Jesus is telling us we should persist in prayer the same way the lady persisted in bugging the heck out of the grumpy old judge. As if God’s policy is to grant the prayers of the most annoying people. As if we’re somehow able to wear God out by calling during supper enough times that God says, “Oh, all right.” That’s not where Jesus is going with his sermon. He’s not trying to make a positive association between God and the grumpy judge. I think what Jesus is saying is, “You know how the judge feels. You know how the widow feels. You know how it feels to win a battle. You know how it feels when you lose one. You know how the surrender/victory stuff feels, you’ve got that concept? OK, now. Set all that aside, because God’s better than that.”

You think your eyes glaze over when scripture says you should pray more and pray harder? Imagine what God’s eyes do when we say, “Uh, excuse me, God? But I’ve asked you seventeen times today to fix this situation and I’m still waiting for your service call. You said you’d be here between 12 and 4, and it’s 3:45, and I just want to make sure you haven’t forgotten me.” Don’t you think God knows? Don’t you think the creator of the universe who formed you in your mother’s womb knows something about your situation? I think Jesus is going for a negative comparison, here. God is better than a grumpy judge. And God’s better than your impatience.

The Lord said: Think about what that crooked judge said. Won't God protect his chosen ones who pray to him day and night? Won't he be concerned for them? He will surely hurry and help them. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find on this earth anyone with faith?

Prayer is not about prevailing. Prayer isn’t about winning and losing in the same way we win or lose when we’re trying to get our way. Prayer isn’t about getting what you want. If that’s your idea of prayer, and that works for you, OK. But I think Jesus is suggesting that we take our understanding of prayer one step further. I think Jesus is asking us to try praying not because of our wants for what we don’t have, but praying because of our faith that we do have. I think what Jesus’ sermon comes down to is this: Prayer isn’t about getting what you want; prayer is about surrendering your wants. Prayer is about surrendering your wants. If there is surrender in prayer, it’s not in God surrendering to your annoyance. If there’s surrender in prayer, it’s about us surrendering – us surrendering those things we want so badly – it’s about us surrendering those things we want so badly before our God who already knows us inside and out.

In this kind of prayer, there’s no winning or losing, because God’s already on your side. Now, be careful with that. God’s not on your side because your side is always the right side. What you’re asking God for may be totally detrimental to yourself, your friends and the environment. God’s not on your side because you’re so darn smart. God’s on your side, because God’s inside. God made you, God knows you, God knows what’s in your heart and on your mind way before you send God the memo.

No, what I think Jesus is saying about prayer is that it should be an act of our surrender. Prayer should be an act of our surrender to the knowledge that God already knows. God already knows, God already cares. That’s what I think Jesus means when he asks, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find on this earth anyone with faith?” Faith isn’t convincing a grumpy God to give you what you want. Faith is giving in to the feeling that even before a thought is on your mind or a word is on your lips, God understands, God cares, God loves. And so you can take that prayer to God, having faith – faith – that God cares about the burdens that weigh you down, as well as the joys that make you say, “Halleluia.” You can take that prayer to God having faith – that God will supply the “Amen.”

If someone already knows what you’re going to say, and if that someone wants the very best for you, what, then, is the purpose of the words you speak? If someone who loves you wants to tell you they love you, you don’t say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. You told me that yesterday.” You want to hear those words because you love back. I would guess it’s pretty much the same for God, wanting to hear our prayers, even though God already knows what we’re going to say. When we give in to that feeling, we start to understand that we’re not alone. Life is not us against City Hall or us against the world, or even us against God. We’re not alone. God is with us. God listens. God cares.

If God is with us, God listens, and God cares, then prayer opens up one final door. Prayers of faith in the one we’re praying to, aren’t just us talking and talking and talking. Prayers of faith in the one we’re praying to open the door for us to listen. If God’s so close that God can hear our thoughts, then maybe, just maybe, if we listen really, really close, we can hear God responding to those prayers. If faith is surrendering to the idea that we’re not alone with our wants and needs, then it’s also listening – for the reply – of the one who’s there beside us. If the first door of prayer is surrender, then the second door of prayer is listening.

When was the last time you really, really just listened – for God? Didn’t cajole God, didn’t bug God, didn’t tap your foot for God – when was the last time you really, really just listened? You may not be able to hear, and even if you hear, you might not be able to understand, and even if you understand, you may not be able to accept God’s answer to your prayers. That doesn’t mean God isn’t answering. Faith isn’t the magical power to get what you want. Faith is the trust that there is an answer from God, whether we get it or not. Think about it: does it take more faith to pray when you’re getting what you want, or does it take more faith to keep praying, even when you don’t? The final step of faithful prayer is being able to listen, even if don’t like the answer.

So, back to the original questions. What good is prayer? How much do you pray? Why should you keep praying when you keep praying and nothing ever changes? You already know, or you can guess the churchy answers to those questions. What you don’t know – and what you won’t know – until you pray about them – is how you and God are going to answer those questions… together.