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

Saturday, July 27, 2013

God of the Worriers

Luke 13:31-35
God of the Worriers
 31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." 32 He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.' 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'"
Do we have anyone here today who's really, really good at worrying?
Like, if they had a Worrying Olympics, you'd be a gold medalist?
Because you understand;
you have this sixth sense for seeing the human head-ons before they happen, and it's up to you, and your skills, your spiritual gift of worrying to keep the world from spinning out of control and into chaos for all eternity?
God bless you.
Thank you.
Has anyone ever thanked you for worrying?
We should.
Where would we be without the worriers?
We'd all be in car wrecks without clean underwear.
We'd all have shot an eye out with those BB guns.

Worry just a the sign of a rich imagination.
Worry shows how much you care, even if other people just don't understand.
In the scripture lesson today, some really unlikely people – the Pharisees – are worried.
They're actually worried about Jesus.
Imagine that.
The Pharisees are worried that he's heading toward Jerusalem, headfirst into trouble.
The Pharisees – usually they're the ones Jesus is castigating, calling hypocrites –
the Pharisees, these faithful, conservative fathers of faith –
the Pharisees – are worried about Jesus.
Good for them.
The Pharisees say, "Get out of here! Herod wants to kill you!"
They might not care about Jesus, personally, but they can see the human head-on coming around the corner. 
Not everything the Bible has to say about the Pharisees is bad.
And likewise, I want to take a moment to say a few good things about worry.
You know, everybody always talks about worry as if it's completely and totally horrible.
Bobby McFerrin had that song everybody remembers, "Don't Worry, Be Happy."
Like worry is the opposite of happiness.
And that's usually what we think – happy people don't worry about anything.
I don't believe that.
I think people are happy because they worry about the right things.
If you care, you worry.
Take Jesus, for example.
Jesus worried.
It says so in today's scripture. "Jerusalem, oh Jerusalem," he says.
"How often I would have gathered your children together like a mother hen gathers her baby chicks under her wing."
I think anyone who cared so much about healing people's bodies and souls would have worried.
Jesus worried; he worried a lot; and that's not what killed him.
Everybody worries.
We worry about our kids.
We worry about other people's kids.
We worry about the people's kids at the restaurant, jumping on the seat in the booth behind us.
We worry about the parents of the kids who are jumping on the seat in the booth behind us.
We worry about them, and their parenting skills.
We worry that we've wasted all this money on a dinner we're not enjoying at all.
We worry about kids.
We worry about parents.
Especially if our parents are getting older.
And who doesn't think their parents are getting old?
Teenagers, especially, worry that their parents are totally old and losing the ability to know what's fun and they just have to trust you.
It starts about the time you turn thirteen and never ends.
We worry because we care.
Ask yourself, where would the world be without the worriers?
Where would we be without you wonderful people who who keep a full pharmacy in your purse?
"Oh, sweetie, you need a band-aid?
What size?
Clear, character, or latex-free?"

Thank you, you worriers.
If it weren't for you, there'd never be batteries in the flashlight, gas in the car, or Purel in those little-tiny bottles on a keychain.
No restaurant inspectors.
No vaccines to prevent diseases.
The clueless rest of the world depends on the worriers.
So, worriers, even though you drive the rest of your family crazy, thank you.

Psychologists say that 90% of what you worry about never happens.
Thank you, worriers!
Just 10% more and you'll fix everything.
Jesus worried.
Like a mother hen worries about her baby chicks, so Jesus worries about Jerusalem.
But you would think, of all people, Jesus would be able to shake off his worries.
But no.
The place, the people who are worrying him the most – that's precisely where Jesus is headed.
And that's kind of interesting.
Jesus is not standing on the sidelines saying, "Don't worry, be happy."
No. Jesus is heading straight toward the things that are worrying him the most.
The human head-ons, the self-destructive tendencies, the dangerous city streets – those are precisely the places God is headed.
And that's good.

Worry is good to the extent that it shows us that we care.
You want to know what's important to someone?
Find out what he or she worries about.
Worry is good because the right person's worry might even keep you alive.
But on top of all this, worry – scripturally understood – when we're thinking God-thoughts – worry gives us a big, big clue where God is, where God is heading, and, where God needs us to be.
Where was Jesus headed?
Straight into the middle of the place that worried his heart the most.

The next time you're really worried, try something.
Instead of getting mad at yourself because you're worrying too much…
or instead of getting mad at the people you're worrying about because they're not as worried as you are…
try this: Take a deep breath, and then ask yourself, 
"What is this worry teaching me about God?"
Ask, "Where IS God in this situation I'm so worried about?"
I'm not asking you to let go of your worries;
Because I know people, and I know that's not going to happen.
Heck, it didn't even happen for Jesus.
I'm not asking you to give up worry.
I'm asking you to learn from your worries.
And that's not something most of us ever do.
For most of us, worry is an end unto itself, isn't it?
But if we think of worry as a lesson, as a sign of concern and compassion, it can even bring us closer to God.
But what if you can't stop the human head-on?
What if all your care, all your prayers, all your wishing and hoping can't stop the disaster you (alone, it seems) can see from five miles away?
Jesus wrestled with this one.
He starts out saying, "How often have I desired to gather your children together as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings… and you were not willing!"
I can just imagine his shoulders drooping.
"See," he says, "your house is left to you."
Jesus tried.
He worried.
He yearned to see God's children come to him, but they wouldn't.
"Your house is left to you."
He couldn't stop the head-on.
The Pharisees wrestled with this one.
All along, Jesus has been their nemesis, this irritatingly smart young preacher who drives them crazy, and even they can see what's coming.
"Get out of here!"
No. Not even their worry can stop what's coming.

Think about your own worry.
Has your worry, you exhausting, consuming worry, really changed the person you're worried about?
Maybe. Sometimes. 
But a lot of times, no.
While worry can be a warning light, while worry can show us what's important to people, while worry might even teach us about God –
in the end – worry really isn't that strong.
Worry has limits.
The force of will – the force of other people's wills – the force of God's will – in the end – is always going to be stronger than worry.
All through the New Testament, people worried about Jesus.
Not just the Pharisees, but the disciples, Jesus' friends and family – they all worried about him.
Imagine where we'd be if their worry had been stronger than the will of Jesus.
Imagine what kind of a Savior we'd have if Jesus had said, "OK. You're right. 
"I won't go to Jerusalem. 
"I won't talk about suffering and the cross. 
"I won't say anything more about resurrection and eternal life. 
"From now on, I'll keep a low profile and stay out of trouble."
Worry loses its usefulness at the point when we start thinking it's stronger than the force of will.
Worry gets in the way when it stops people from doing what they really need to do.
Worry gets in the way when it stops YOU from doing things you OUGHT to be doing.
Worry becomes its own human head-on, an obsession, a way of existence that sucks the spirit out of us.
If all you do day and night is worry, you're sinking your energies into a very limited power.
If this is where you are, then your spiritual gift may be a sign of a physical illness, and you really should talk to somebody about it.
Maybe your doctor, or a therapist.
In the Bible, worry ALMOST became a horrible, incurable, pandemic spiritual illness when it threatened to stop Jesus from doing the things he needed to do to save the people he cared so much about.
Praise God that the force of will was stronger than the strength of worry.
Praise God that God's care and concern for worried, self-destructive, sinful people like us –
praise God that Christ's love is stronger than our misguided worries.
Something else I want to ask you to think about when you find yourself worrying is this:
Ask yourself if – by your worries – you're standing in Jesus' way.
Ask yourself if by your worrying, are you acting like of the Pharisees, telling Jesus, "Get out of here!"?
Are you saying, "Get out of here, Jesus! For your own good, go! 
"It just isn't safe here in my life!"?
Do you really want Jesus to do what you tell him?
Or are you, in your own way, showing him precisely where he needs to be?
Jesus' final word to Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it – Jesus' final word to this dangerous place is this.
After telling the city, "See, your house is left to you," Jesus gives them one more word of hope in verse 39.
He says, "And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'"
He's telling them that there will come a day when they'll see things differently.
He's telling the city that there will come a day when they'll be glad he has willfully walked right into their troubles.
He's saying that the city's threats and worries, and even its murderous intentions, will reach their limit.
And the threats and worries, and even its murderous intentions, will bow down to the power and presence of God.
Even in a world – even in a heart – consumed by its own worries, God is there.
And God is stronger.
And God's will prevails.
You don't have to worry about that.

Let's pray...

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Listening In Tongues

Listening in Tongues

"Whoever has ears ought to hear." - Matthew 13:9

Have you ever noticed that the harder you try to make somebody understand something, the less they actually do?

On my evening walk, I listened to an interview with Meredith Monk, a singer and composer who writes songs for the human voice that contain few, if any, words. She thinks of the voice as "the original instrument." So her songs are really strange (and I mean that in a good way) - moans, cries, shouts, lovely abstract spirals of choirs singing without trying to "say" anything with words. It's like jazz scat singing, but with less rhythm and more drama.


In many ways, Monk's music is like the Pentecostal practice of speaking in tongues. It's the ancient method described in the Bible (1 Corinthians 12:10 among others) of ecstatic speaking and singing without words. It's also found in the practices of Sufi Islam and Tibetan Buddhism. The belief is that the speaker has come so close to God that the experience is beyond words, is mystical and transcendent, yet must be expressed.

Presbyterians, historically, have been pretty suspicious of tongue-speakers. We come from the flavor of Christians that want everything explained in the depth of points and sub-points, using as many ten-dollar words as possible. We think of ourselves as scholarly, so we're dismissive of anything that can't be described and resolved. It works. Sometimes. But sometimes not.

And that's the problem.

When someone tries to carefully explain something that I don't have time to hear, they may be saying real words, but it's like I'm listening in tongues. Their lips are moving, words are coming out, but all I hear is, "Blah, blah, yip, screech, urggh, skippity-bop-boo."

Jesus knew this. He didn't speak in tongues, but he knew that people listen in them. He was notorious for not explaining what he meant. Maybe that's because he knew the more you try to explain God, the less attractive it sounds. So, when Jesus closed his lessons (often just parables with no clear point), he would say something like, "Whoever has ears ought to hear."

Well, yes, we should hear, and we would hear, if we weren't so likely to be listening in tongues.

Speaking in tongues expresses how close a person is to God. Listening in tongues shows how disconnected we are.

Listening, hearing, really sitting still and being present with someone - is hard. Listening to God, who doesn't always speak in words, who doesn't always draw neat conclusions for us - that's hard, too. Really hard.

So often, it's not that we need to "learn God's language," it's that we need to stop listening in tongues.

"Whoever has ears ought to hear."

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Another Way To Stand Your Ground

Another Way to "Stand Your Ground"

"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  Do to others as you would have them do to you." (Luke 6:27-31)

There's so much discussion - most of it very polarized - much of it angry - much of it aloof - concerning the verdict in the George Zimmerman (and by default, Trayvon Martin) trial. I have nothing productive to add to the discussion; I don't think much of the present discussion is all that productive.

But the discussion did prompt me to reread Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s, "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Dr. King's eloquent testimony still rings true, productively speaking truth to the violence of any age. I encourage you to read it. Google it for a free copy. A website with the text and footnotes is:


Dr. King wrote plainly and passionately about those who chose to stand their ground in the face of overwhelming power - firehoses, beatings, and bullets. His words were deeply rooted in the teachings of Jesus.

At Jesus' arrest, when the disciple Peter drew his sword in an act of self- and Savior-defense, Jesus said, "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?" (Matthew 26:52-53)

When tempted to turn stones to bread to sate his own hunger, Jesus said, "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." (Matthew 4:4)

When asked how many times we should forgive those who sin against us, Jesus said, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven." (Matthew 18:22)

Time and again, when tempted to use his power to protect his own needs Jesus stood his ground, never returning evil for evil, never putting himself above another, never flinching. Jesus stood his ground, fixed securely in God and God's word, which promises that even though we will walk through the valley of the shadow of death, evil will not ever prevail.

In 2013, "Stand Your Ground" means laws that let you use a weapon in defense.

In Jesus, to stand your ground means to put your weapons away.

Every day, in small ways, and occasionally in large ones, we're all tempted to exercise our sense of privilege, to demand what's ours, to get what we're owed. Sometimes it's an important matter of standing up for basic, God-given human rights. But most of the time, it's not. Most of the time, it's simply the matter of raising our voices, raising our blood pressure, raising our claims of how right we are and how wrong someone else is not to see it. Most of the time it's just petty irritation, loosely based in the shifting sands of our moods, our grudges, our fears, or the fact that we haven't eaten enough and we have a headache, so we're entitled to be a little rude to the lady at the counter who can't make change.

Every day, we make choices in how we treat people. Every day, our choices will show what kind of ground we're standing on. It's not easy to stand our ground in the ways of Christ. It can be so hard not to strike back, not to snap back, not to think back in an equal act of meanness. But if we can practice standing our ground in Jesus during the small choices, then when the big choices arise, we'll be ready, neither fearing evil nor responding in kind.


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