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

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

It's Hard to Be Still on Christmas Eve

It's hard to be still on Christmas Eve.


On Christmas Eve we go to church.

Whose idea was that?

Mom says we have to be still and pay attention.

She says she'll take my candle away.

But the preacher talks for a long time.

And I don't know all the words to the songs.

And tomorrow's Christmas!

How could anybody ever be still?


My grandfather winks at me from down the row.

Somebody's cell phone rings.

They pass a tray of bread over top of me.

Nobody else is still. Why should I be?


I like it when we pray.

When we pray no one is looking but Jesus.

I close my eyes and think of him.

I wonder what he was like at Christmas.

I bet he cried like all babies do.

I think he liked looking at the animals in the manger.

I'm sure it felt good when his mom held him.

I hope nobody told him to be still.


So if I wiggle on Christmas Eve,

I think it's OK with Jesus.

Because he was a kid, too.

If Jesus moves around on Christmas Eve,

it's OK with me.



It IS hard to be still on Christmas Eve.

Even if your body's still, it's hard to keep your mind from wandering.



Nobody bustles except at Christmas.

You're mentally running.

Jumping through lists. Checking them twice.

At least.

And look around you at all these people doing the same thing.

I know what you're thinking.

"What's that person's name?"

"He's put on weight."

"She's had work done."

"What an unusual Christmas sweater."


Even at church there's so much to see.

Choir. Handbells. Tree.


"How much does it weigh?"

"How well is it attached?"

You think you're the first to ask these things?


It's Christmas and our brains are busy.

Minds wandering, led down memory lanes by ghosts of Christmas past.

Minds racing.

Minds chasing – chasing dreams of how Christmas is supposed to be and could still be and should be if Santa would only pay attention and write down the gift ideas when we say them the first time.


It's hard to be still at Christmas.

No matter what age you are.

And you know what?

That's OK.




The Bible's Christmas Story is about Joseph and Mary and a little gray donkey.

It's about an earthly host of tired travelers converging from all directions on a town unprepared for the season.

It's about an inn with not a single room left.

Barely even a stable out back for the poor lady who's so more than ready to give birth.

It's about shepherds and kings and heavenly choirs and a star so bright you can set your course by it.

So, so many racing people, chasing people, hustling and bustling, not a still, not a silent, not a holy night.


It was hard for Mary and Joseph and Bethlehem to be still.

It was hard for the countryside and the crowds.

And you know what?

Apparently that was OK, too.




It's hard to be still on Christmas Eve.

It's always been that way.

From the first until now.

It's hard to be still.

It's hard for our bodies to be still.

It's hard for our minds to be still.

It's hard for our children to be still, to be silent, holy, no crying they make.

Not only is that OK, it appears to be God's fertile ground for doing something new.


Christmas can be chaotic.

It often is.

A lot of people stress out at Christmas.

(Anybody here been stressing out?)

We want it to be perfect.

The stockings hung by the chimney with care.

The tree trimmed where the ornaments face the right direction and the cat doesn't see it as a giant playground.

With Carrie Underwood herself standing in the living room, singing carols.

"Oh, Carrie, thanks for coming. Have another egg nog."

We want it all calm and bright, tender and mild, a truly silent and holy night.

We'd like at least a few hours of heavenly peace.

God bless you if your Christmas works like that.

But the first one didn't.

It looked like a mess.

Any of you ever ride a donkey for a couple of days right before your due date?

With a fiancé who didn't make reservations?


And God still blessed.

Blessed a world too busy to see, people too absorbed to notice.

In fact, God seems to really like making something holy from the chaos.

Not only does God seem to like it, it seems to be standard operating procedure.

It's God's standard operating procedure from the beginning.


"In the beginning."

The Gospel of John tells a creation story:

"In the beginning was the Word…. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."


Sounds a lot like Genesis in the beginning.


In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good…


God's standing operating procedure is to create something out of nothing.

Light out of darkness.

To roll the big bangs of swirling, churning chaos into meaning.

Nothing's still when God's on the move.

Not the earth and the stars, not heavenly bodies or earthly babies.

They're all bouncing off the walls.

Delivery of God's love sure seems to be scheduled at the most unexpected times, because they're the ones when we think chaos is all there is and ever will be.


24-hour news cycles show us vivid, discomforting, often horrible pictures of how our world is awash in chaos.

And it's not OK.

The world is not OK.

But when has it ever been?

The world's not moving according to God's plan.

But how could a reader of the Bible be surprised?

Human beings, as a whole, have never moved according to God's plan.

Things are always spinning apart.

They always have.


But time and again the Bible tells us of how, at points of critical pressure, God takes the mayhem, and God folds it, God bends it, God wrestles it into unquiet birth.


Again and again.

God makes something from the mess.

Something new.

Something like light that shines in the darkness and will not be overcome, overtired, worn out, or used up.

And that IS OK.

It's more than OK.

It's a blessing.


God is not still on Christmas Eve.

Jesus is not still on Christmas Eve.

The Holy Spirit is not still on Christmas Eve.

They wiggle.

They laugh.

They dance atop the chaos.

They sing in the darkness.

They call to us like children to join in.

They say, "Even if you're not OK, even if things around you aren't hung with care… that's OK."

Because not only can God make something with the scattered pieces, God is exceptionally good at it.

God has a lot of practice.

God has seen worse.

And you – you WILL see better.




Jesus is not still on Christmas Eve.

He's moving around.

He's fidgeting.

Good news for us.

And it's more than OK.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Strange Greetings

2014-12-21 Lk 01 26-38 Strange Greetings


I’m having lunch at one of those trendy West Knoxville restaurants.

Panera Bread Company.

At the table next to me is a group of women, one of whom has her baby with her.

The baby is new, like, freshly born.

The mother is way too perky.

So, right away, I’m thinking, "This baby is stolen."

I get out my phone to call 911.

But to be certain, I decide to observe them for a few more minutes.



The mother is bouncing the baby up and down.

She’s saying, “You’re just the cutest baby in the whole wide world.

Yes you are.

Yes you are.”

Very suspicious.

First, I doubt this young mother has actually seen all the other babies in the whole wide world.

Second, I’m pretty sure she never saw our daughters when they were infants.

I think about leaning over to show her some pictures to prove my point.

But this would blow my cover.

Judging by the comments from the other women at the table, as well as random passers-by, this baby is not only the cutest, but also the happiest and smartest child recently born or perhaps ever.

This makes me wonder: What if?

What if I’m seeing the next Einstein?

What if this child grows up to cure diseases, to become president, or a TV celebrity?

What if?



Don’t all new parents think their child is special?

Weren’t we all so certain that we had the cutest, happiest, smartest child in recorded human history?

Weren’t we all so worried that they weren’t?

Babies are like that.

But so is a lot of life, which is what turns into the strange greeting of this story.


What we call the Christmas Story started a long, long time before Christmas.

The Psalm we read about God’s promise testifies to the old, old story that predated Mary by generations.

People had been pining for a Messiah as long as anyone could remember.

It was an emotional issue.

But these emotions hit their peak with Mary and the Angel Gabriel.


Babies amplify everything.

All the excitement, all the fear, all the hope gets turned up to 11.

When we’re around babies and the people birthing them, adopting them, inheriting them, surprised by them (“How can this be, for I am a virgin?”) our hearts grow three sizes, don’t they?

We tune in to that baby vibe from tables away.

Our senses sharpen.

We catch the giddiness.

We sigh in shared exhaustion.

We hope.

We check the kid out and make mental bets whether she’s the next Kim Kardashian or Kim Jong Un.

I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said,

“Yes, I was a Liberal Arts Major. Would you like fries with that?”

You agonize over how they’ll turn out.

You wonder which of your mistakes they’ll be telling their therapist and what they’ll say at your funeral.

“Well, he probably wasn’t the worst dad in the world; then again, I haven’t seen them all.”

Babies – sometimes even the thought of babies – brings out the best in us.

And our psychotic fears.

It’s a human life, for crying out loud.

And they do.

We can barely take care of ourselves, much less this helpless, beautiful, terrifying, sleep-depriving bundle of joy (or something like it).

Am I saying this right?

Am I getting close to describing the stomach-churning, mood-swing they call parenthood and/or its potential?

Are you with me, here?


Because there, right there.

Right there in the eye of this emotional whirlpool, this storm of worry and wonder, faith and fear… beneath this swirling cyclone of promised things and angel’s wings, is where scripture lands us today.



I know this morning we lit the candle of Love.

I spent all week thinking it was the candle of Joy, because I didn’t preach last week and I confuse easily.

I just know the big one in the middle’s for Christmas Eve, because, as I was told in Children’s Sermon several years ago, it’s the Santa Candle.

This job is so complicated.

If they had asked me, I would have told them Hope was the right candle for today.


Because I think what the Angel Gabriel tells Mary is more complicated.

Hope is peace, joy, love… fear, doubt, wonder… all swaddled up together, not unlike a newborn.

Babies are complicated.

Hope is complicated.


The Angel Gabriel comes to Mary and says,


Gabriel was apparently the patron saint of understatement.

“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

Then, it’s Mary’s turn to understate.

Luke writes,

But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

Ya think?

Just wait, Mary.

You ain’t heard nothing yet.

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.

He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.

He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”


All parents think their child is special.

Grandparents are sure of it.

All parents think their child is the cutest, happiest, smartest ever born.

The light of the world.

When they’re at Panera, surrounded by fans.

But it’s always more complicated than that.

Maybe Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes; but everybody else’s kid will throw some royal tantrums.

The light of the world will ruin outfits faster than grandmothers can buy them.

The cutest, happiest, smartest child in the world will feast at the dog’s bowl.


An ultrasound will raise concerns.

A test will make you terrified.

A chromosome falls out of place.

A gene switches on.

Even if kids come into the world announced by angels, the demons of worry will scare you to death.

I’m told that never ends.

Like a doctor reads a lab a report in our day, Gabriel brings strange greetings.


I wonder.

Did Mary hear Gabriel’s greeting as a blessing, or a burden?

How can one person bear the weight of whole generations of longing?


We don’t know how Mary felt.

We can’t know.

We might try to imagine how she felt, but in the end that’s all it is, imagination.

Imagining how Mary felt is impossible.

It’s not the point.


It’s not about us taking a field trip in our minds back to the manger.

It’s not about going back to a past we can’t remember.

Gabriel’s news is about God (and about us) taking a step forward –  a first step, a second step, a third - as scary and as joyful as a baby’s first might be.

We might not be able to journey back to the time of Gabriel and Mary.

But blessedly they catch up with us.

What we DON’T know, what we CAN’T know – about ourselves, about our kids, about our parents, much less about the strangers at the restaurant table next to us, can bring as much anxiety as excitement.


That’s why I think this scripture’s about hope.

Because at the intersection where anxiety and excitement meet is where we find hope.

Hope’s always a balancing act between what scares us and what makes us complete.

Hope’s always a work in progress, conceived but not yet born.

Imagined but not yet seen.

Promised but not fulfilled.

That’s the miraculous thing about hope.

It’s always unfinished.

That’s the difference between wishing and hoping.

Wishing’s predictable.

When you wish for something, you know what you want.

You make a list and check it twice.

You get what you wish for, or you don’t.

And when you do, it’s over.


Hope’s different.

When you hope you give up your predictions.

When you hope, you give up your selfish wishes.

Hope is not wishing.

Hope is not a plan.[1]

Hope is waiting, willingly waiting.

Hope is accepting the swirling, expectant, uncomfortable term of anxiety and excitement and whatever they bring.

When you hope you turn yourself over to mercy of hope itself.

Which is Mary’s last word.

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary’s last word courageously faces the greeting that made her so perplexed.

She accepts the mercy of hope.

She knows that life is going to get really complicated, if it isn’t already.



I don’t know anyone whose life isn’t some kind of mix of anxiety and excitement, fears and joys.

I think the thing is remembering that even for the Blessed Mother of our Lord Jesus, it was like that, too.


That little girl at Panera?

Remember her, the cutest, happiest, smartest baby in the whole wide world?

Turns out she was.

At least for that moment.

She was a little angel.


THE last word in this passage today isn’t Mary’s.

Or Gabriel’s.

Luke finishes the scene with a strange benediction.

He says,

Then the angel departed from her.

The angel leaves Mary alone.

Which for us, really is a merciful blessing.

Even when our little angels appear to be sprouting horns, even when your anxieties threaten to overrun your excitement, or snuff out your light of joy, hope still shines in the awkward balance.

Hope still lives, when you feel left alone.

Hope is where you find it, waiting.

Hope is always where you find hope waiting, with strange greetings.

[1] Dr. Atul Gawande, Being Mortal.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Instant Messenger

2014-12-07 Mark 1:1-8 Instant Messenger


"John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness."

Now, I'm a preacher and you know we can take one sentence and talk for hours about it. I'm not planning to talk for hours, but I can if you want me to. John did the opposite. He took all about Jesus, and compressed it into a couple of short messages. Kind of like people do on Twitter.

Twitter is the world's micro-blogging instant messenger. Do you do Twitter? It's like Facebook for people with really short attention spans. On Twitter, the whole WORLD is your friend, or your enemy, because EVERYBODY can see your tweets, which can get you fired, or arrested, or on TMZ. Or all three.

Twitter forces you to be brief. You get 120 characters per message, called a tweet. Turns out, that can be enough. Revolutions (like the one in Egypt) have been orchestrated 120 characters at a time. Short messages can mean a lot.

In today's scripture, the Bible gives a tweet-worthy message about God's instant messenger, John.

What the Bible says about John is brief. What John says about Jesus is short, too. But if the message is right, and the words are critical, you don't need to go on for hours.



Mark introduces John in one short message:

"John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness."

I counted. 38 characters. If Mark had been tweeting, he could have used 82 more. Mark's like, Tweeter's Digest.

So let's look at this.

"John the BAPTIZER." Baptizer: Critical word #1.


In the King James Version, John was not a "baptiz-er." He was John the Baptist. A full-on, freshwater dunking Baptist. John was Baptist before Baptist was cool.  He appeared in the Judean countryside, which is the south part of Israel. So John wasn't just Baptist, he was a SOUTHERN Baptist. He was a Southern JEWISH-Baptist. Lord have mercy. No wonder so many people came out to look at him.


From what little Mark says, it doesn't seem John had formal ties to any particular Jewish sect. John the baptizer just APPEARS. Appears – critical word #2.

In Mark, there's no backstory. John's a pop-up. He was out there, on his own authority, all on his own. He was an Independent Southern Jewish-Baptist. Hardshell and Missionary, too. Not just foot-washing, he was whole-body-washing. John called people to, "Repent!" For The End is near. And John took no shenanigans.

Now, repentance and atonement for sin was nothing new. The Jewish people had a Day of Atonement. And, if you had certain sins, you could atone any old day by going to the Temple in Jerusalem, paying a fee (money or livestock), undergoing ritual baths, and being declared clean by the priests. John wasn't offering anything you couldn't buy somewhere else.

Except, John was doing it outside the Temple. John was an outsider, literally working outside. But wait, there's more: Not only was John offering forgiveness, he was offering it for free. Strange things happen in the wilderness.



John the baptizer appears in the WILDERNESS

Wilderness – critical word #3.

Didn't we just come through Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday? Proof positive that people love a bargain the days before Jesus comes.

People flocked to John like Doorbusters at Wal-Mart. Well, maybe with a little more civility. The Bible doesn't report any fistfights or trampling. But come they did. Rich and poor. Young and old. Near and far. Forgiveness of sin was on sale. And unlike the Temple establishment, John was giving it away. The whole thing was wild. Uncivilized, as the civilization of forgiveness went.

They'd wade into the Jordan River and cross over the far side, the Dark Side, the symbolic, enslaved side of Exodus from the Egyptians.

(If you're not sure what Exodus was like, there's a new blockbuster movie out that tells you all about it. Moses is played by Batman, so it should be exciting. "Letmypeoplego" [raspy voice].)

The penitent would wade over to the far side, and then reenact the escape from Pharaoh's slavery by coming back toward John, who, near the middle of the river, would baptize them under the water, so they could rise up, symbolically reborn into new life, forgiven from their sins. For free.[1]


Now, after 2000 years of Christianity, this whole "free" thing has been so drilled into us that we take it for granted. Worse, we make it trite. Jesus did the work so you don't have to. "His Pain, Your Gain." "Paid in full." Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.

But at the time, John's baptism into forgiveness, John's uncivilized, wilderness-y, free gift of atonement, his 43-character message, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight" – all of John – his person and his message - was nothing less than revolutionary. The civil authorities despised revolution. They were afraid John was starting something un-civil, something un-controllable. And they also feared that whoever came after him would be even WORSE.

And they were right.

John cleared the path for a revolution with his short, wild, primitive Baptist message that appeared out of nowhere.

Just in time for Jesus.

"John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness."



Twitter gives you 120. How many characters does it take to make up a church? There's usually a fair number in the choir. And the oddest character's likely in the pulpit.

When we were coming up with a revised Mission Statement for the church, we knew we wanted something short, because we wanted to remember it. Rhyming helps.

So to go along with the vision of being "A church in the community, serving the community of God," we say that our purpose is to follow Christ's mission (not our own but Christ's): Welcoming, Worshiping, Educating, Celebrating, Tending and Sending. That's kind of our John the Baptizer squishing down of all we do into a short message. Six critical words that guide just about every church.

If you were going to squeeze all that you do and all that you are into 120 characters or less, what would your short message be?

What would you WANT it to be? If John the Baptist appeared in church a few minutes before you to let people know you were coming, how would you want him to announce you? What would you want him to say? Or tweet? To the world?



A couple of years ago, I did a wedding that, unbeknownst to me, was being live-tweeted by a member of the audience. I saw the feed afterward. It was like Al Michaels doing play-by-play.

"The minister has entered the building." #itsstarting

"The bride is walking down the aisle." #shesbeautiful

Thank the Lord there was nothing like, "The minister has tripped over his robe." "The preacher has dropped the rings," hashtag "idiotpresbyterian." 

Because once it's out there, it's out there, in the wilderness, for the whole world to see.

But in their first-century way, that's what people were doing when they came to John for the forgiveness of sins. They were confessing their mess-ups to John, in public, before God and everybody. All their character faults were out there. All their sins were revealed with the hope that they wouldn't be taken back. And John gave them a really short message reply. It said, "You are forgiven." "Now wait 'til you see what's coming next."

We do this – you do this – every Sunday. It's why the Prayer of Confession is up toward the start of the service. It's like your personal yet public trip to the river. Say your sins, post them for the world to hear. Do it so you'll be ready for what's coming next.

"John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness."

It's a short message of critical words.

Here's YOUR short message of critical words, publicly posted to your account by John, confirmed by Jesus, and guaranteed rock-solid by the Holy Spirit. You ready for it? Here it is, your 3 critical words that will change your whole character. Here it is.

"You are forgiven."

Now. Get ready for what's going to pop up next.

[1] Reza Aslan, Zealot, Chap 7, The Voice Crying Out in the Wilderness.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

No Surprises, Please

2014-11-30 Mk 13 24-37

No Surprises, Please


"What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake!" said Jesus to everyone. "Keep awake!" Because with the advent of Jesus Christ, with the preparations for his kingdom, looking toward the future… we don't know what's really going to happen. We might THINK we know, but we don't know. Especially when we're talking about Jesus, we don't – and we can't – know what's going to happen.


How do you know what's coming?


It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas (everywhere you go). We're lighting candles and singing the GOOD hymns. Not that all the others aren't good, but there's just something about those Christmas carols. We preachers try to remind you that it's not really Christmas season yet. We try. We say, "Wait! Hold on! Thanksgiving was only last Thursday. We tell you Christmas season doesn't really begin until the day AFTER Christmas. Silly preachers. Everybody knows Christmas season starts the day after Halloween. The day after Christmas is when the SALES start. Everybody knows that. Everybody's making plans, because, we know what's coming.


You know what time it is. You've planned for it. Some of you already have all your presents bought and all your cards in the mail. The rest of us hate you. Not really. Well, a little. Cold weather's finally here. The deceitful trees have thrown all their leaves into our gutters. WalMart has giant, inflatable Santas. We know what time it is. Like the fig tree Jesus spoke of, we see the change of seasons. We know what's going to happen. It's the end of the college football season (unless you're going to a bowl). We can read the writing on the wall. We know what's going to happen. We're smart. We don't like surprises.


We know what's coming this Christmas season because the same things happen every Christmas season. We light the Advent candles. We have the Cantata. We read pretty much the same scriptures. And hear sermons on the same scriptures. That's why we start out with the one that says, "Keep awake!" All this stuff about the sun and the moon and the stars burning out... all this prophesy about the foundations of the universe being shaken up. Do we really believe that? We believe it in principle, sure. But we don't really expect these things to happen. Not before this generation passes away. Not before Christmas. We might believe it as a concept, but we don't watch for it. We don't stay awake for the end of the world. It's the topic for other preachers in other denominations. Good Presbyterians that we are, we know what's coming because we plan what's coming. We save. We buy. We make lists for Santa and go to the mall so our kids can hand him the printouts. Christmas is a time of no surprises, or few surprises. We tell the jolly old elf what we want and then sit back and let him do his thing. Here's some marital counseling. Guys -- if your wife tells you what she wants for Christmas, get it. She doesn't want surprises. She doesn't want a Black & Decker Weed Whacker instead of jewelry, no matter how much more practical it might be. Just a little free counseling. If they don't ask for surprises, don't get surprises. We know it's Christmas because there aren't surprises unless we say there are going to be surprises, and if there are surprises, we darn well better know what they're going to be.


We know it's Christmas because the same things happen every year. We're comfortable with them. We're OK with tradition. OK, sure, the Christ baby surprised everyone that first Christmas day, but one surprise in 2000 years is enough. Christmas is our great festival of predictability. We like it that way.


So what do we do with scripture that tells us that Christ's advent is utterly unpredictable? What do we do with scripture that tells us while Christ's coming is good, it's not exactly pleasant by our standards? What happens when the Word of God goes against everything we expect -- in the busiest holiday season of the year? The Birth of Christ and Christmas are really two different things. Someday all that we can prepare for will crash head-first into all that we can't. And scripture tells us what we can't prepare for will win. How do we know that's going to happen? Not because we've put it on layaway. Not because we've done it that way for 1000 years. We know what's going to happen because God says it's going to happen. Maybe that's the biggest surprise of all. What God says is going to happen will happen. And God's happening will wipe out everything we think we're prepared for.


Praying, and watching, for God's kingdom to come is not the prayer of the man (or woman) who has everything. Praying and watching for God's kingdom is not the prayer of the child who can't wait to see what's under the tree. No, it's the other way around. Praying and watching for God's kingdom is the prayer of someone whose life is predictable only in its chaos. When we reach the point of knowing in our hearts that things aren't how they're supposed to be... When we reach the point of hoping for hope itself... God's promises of universal surprise begin to pull us through. God's promises of a new heaven and a new earth pull us into hope that we can't buy, make, bake, or charge. God's promise of change gives us life when our plans fall dead. When we honestly don't know what's going to happen next... When we truly can't plan our way out of a paper bag, Christ whispers the advent carol to us: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel. That mourns in lonely exile here. Until the Son of God appear. Rejoice. Rejoice. Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel." It isn't a carol of birth; it's a carol of rebirth. Have you ever really listened to a lot of the Christmas-slash-Advent songs? They're almost too honest to sing. Advent strips off the jolly sweaters we want to wear. Advent sings straight at the heart. Like an arrow to the soul, Advent sings songs only God knows how to write. We don't know exactly how they're going to go. But we know they will. Not because we can sing, or live, or plan our words and deeds so carefully. Advent will come in God's way, in God's time, because God says it will.


How do we know what's going to happen this Christmas? We all have our ideas about that. But how do we know what's going to happen in Advent? How do we know what's going to happen when Christ comes? Miracle of miracles we don't know. We can't know. But God knows. And God says, "Just watch. Just watch. And you'll see."

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Again and Again, Over and Over

2014-11-23 Matthew 25:31-46


Last Monday, just before I looked up the scripture for today, Don called me to let me know he was using this passage during the Stewardship Message. I told him, fine, ‘cause it’s a good one. Of course, it’s the Bible, so, they’re all good. It’s the Good Book. But this one seemed extra-good for the day when we were talking Stewardship and talking Mission.

So after we hung up, I looked at the Lectionary scriptures for this Sunday. Low and behold, it was the same scripture Don had picked. Kind of a weird coincidence, don’t you think? He obviously has connections. I think what Don said summed it up well enough for both of us. But I’m a preacher; I’m not about to let that stop me. We preachers believe anything worth saying once is worth saying again, and again.



The reason we have this particular scripture today is because on the church calendar, this is Christ the King Sunday. Christ the King is the last Sunday before next Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent, the season of getting ready for the coming of Christ and Christmas. Nobody knows this, except preachers and the blessed saint-elves who change the paraments to white.

Once again, the church is painfully out of step with reality. This Sunday should rightfully come on Halloween -- because the day after Halloween’s when the stores and the catalogs and the pre-pre-pre-Black Friday emails start telling us to get ready to get ready for Christmas. Late again, Christians.

Thanksgiving? What’s that? A day to overeat, go to Target, and complain about your family. Americans do those things EVERY day. Between midterm elections and the rush to the sales, we’ve got a HUGE jump on seasonal anxiety, easily a month before the Sunday when we recognize Christ as King.

But maybe something else is going on. Maybe this is another of those weird coincidences. Maybe God’s good connection to us is saying that in the middle of personal, political, earthly anxieties, we need – we need – more than ever to be reminded that Christ IS King. Maybe in the middle of calendar creep, we need – we need – more than ever to know that Christ – and not earthly powers, and not us -- Christ is King. Maybe this is God’s quiet way of reminding us (again) that we are judged not by our achievement or accomplishment, or even our own opinions, but we are judged by Christ. Christ who is King. King of sheep and King of goats, King of rich and King of poor, King of ready and King of not. Christ is King. This Sunday. And every Sunday. So get ready. To get ready. Again.



The Social Anxiety Institute (and doesn’t that sound like an uplifting place to work?) -- the nervous scientists at the Social Anxiety Institute say social anxiety is the fear of being judged and evaluated negatively… leading to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression.[1]

I mention this because the scripture on Christ the King Sunday is all about being judged and evaluated, possibly leading to eternal punishment.

“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…. ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”

“Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’”

“‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Thus are separated the good from the bad as easily as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Buh-bye, goat-people. Thanks for flying.

If you tend at all toward social anxiety, this parable is going to raise your heart rate. If you’re a relatively wealthy North American, this parable OUGHT to raise your consciousness, if not your blood pressure. It OUGHT to prick your conscience, just a little, maybe more. Because there’s always more to do. There’s always someone least-er than the least of these. There’s always someone in prison, someone hungry, someone sick. There’s a lot of naked people. Especially on the Internet, I’ve heard. You should do something about this if you’re at all feeling sheepy.

Every time I read this passage, I feel sheepish. But not in a good way. I feel guilty. I’m a preacher and we’re kind of like God’s little Petri dishes of guilt. I’m a carrier. You’re welcome.

But feeling guilty is easy. Guilt is cheap. Doing something with that guilt, doing something about it, turning the anxiety and fear of judgment into action – that’s the harder way. It’s the better way. But it’s going to cost you. Just like it cost Jesus. Because it’s the way of Christ. Christ the King.



Today’s scripture is the last lesson Jesus teaches his disciples before heading to Jerusalem, to the cross. So, you pile up and stand on all his lessons, and this is his big finale. Jesus knows what’s coming. And he may also know what’s coming after what’s coming. So, in this final lesson, he’s teaching his disciples to get ready to get ready for what’s coming after what’s coming. I think this is supposed to be good news. I don’t think he meant it to freak out his followers with anxiety. I think in his typical Jesus, roundabout way, he was telling them, telling us, that there’s more than what you see coming.

I think this is so because Jesus’s disciples were NOT relatively wealthy first-world people who occasionally felt guilty about their possessions because it was easier than giving them away. I think Jesus meant this parable of judgment to be GOOD news because his disciples WERE the poor. His followers WERE the sick. His friends WERE the people in prison or would be there very soon. His OWN stomach may have rumbled when he taught this. His OWN tongue might have been dry for thirst.

Jesus is not preaching in a great cathedral. He’s not preaching in the comfortable suburbs. He’s preaching this at the Volunteer Ministry Center. He’s preaching it on the steps of a Habitat for Humanity home. This is not a guilt-inducing threat. At least, not to the poor sheep of the Good Shepherd. This is the grand fulfilment of everything he has been saying all along. This is what’s on the Final Exam. “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are the strangers, the outcasts, the prisoners, the sick.”

Blessed are you because there IS more. There IS something coming after what’s coming. There IS something worth getting ready for after all you can do to get ready. Blessed are you because the final judge is not your accomplishment or your achievement, or your appropriate level of first-world guilt. Blessed are you because your final judge is NOT what other people think about you, or say about you, or whisper behind your back. None of these is your final judge. The Son of Man is your final judge. And the Son of Man not only CAME for you, he’s JUST like you. He’s one of you, he IS you.

The harder way, the most costly way, the saving way, is to believe that your final judge is NOT your own anxiety, or conscience, or guilt. They don’t even come close. The final judge is Christ the King. And he’s not some unknowable dictator who enjoys sitting on a throne and separating sheep from goats. No. He’s as close as that person beside you. You can know him. You can shake hands with him. You can eat dinner beside him. You can take clothes to him, or her, and her whole family. You can build them a house. You can visit them when they’re sick.

In the scripture, both sets of people ask, “Lord, when did we see you?” They don’t know. YOU do not know enough to judge yourself. You will never be that fair. But you can know the Judge. You can know the King. And you can come to know him again, and again. 

Over and over.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

This is Heaven?

2014-11-09 Mt 25 01-13 This is Heaven?


So. The kingdom of heaven is like a group of people who fell asleep.

Not that surprising. Anyone else ever fallen asleep in church? DON'T raise your hand. It's been happening since Jesus was a boy. The Book of Acts, Chapter 20, says one time the Apostle Paul preached so long a young man dozed off and fell out a window and died. Luckily Paul knew how to bring him back to life. We just keep a defibrillator in the hallway.

Staying awake is hard. And not just in church.

"Was it a good movie?"

"Well, Dad stayed awake."

("I give it two eyelids up.")

Golf tournaments: Everybody's whispering. College lectures. I-40 west of Nashville. Children's bedtime stories. And it's so embarrassing when you wake up and the kid's reading the book to herself. "Goodnight, Moon. Goodnight Daddy."

People falling asleep in church doesn't bother me at all. And I mean that in the least passive-aggressive way possible. I tell myself, "You were probably up all night, treating Ebola patients, rescuing kittens."

There's nothing wrong with falling asleep, even in church. How do I know? Jesus says the kingdom of HEAVEN is like a group of people who fell asleep. All ten bridesmaids fall asleep. But five of them were smart; they brought supplies. Five of them were foolish; their lamps went empty. And when the bridegroom came for the wedding banquet, the five prepared ones went in to the party, but the five foolish went on a shopping trip and missed it. Everybody falls asleep, the scripture says. Everybody falls asleep. But the smart ones have backups. The foolish ones lose everything.

And I'm thinking, "This is heaven? This is the kingdom of heaven?" Really? This doesn't sound like the Jesus I know. Maybe Jesus is meaner than I think. Or maybe I'm sleepwalking through church.



Matthew is the only gospel where Jesus talks about, "The kingdom of HEAVEN." Did you know that? In all the other gospels, Jesus talks about "The kingdom of GOD." It's probably the same difference. But Matthew says HEAVEN and that makes us think of, well, heaven.

We're used to thinking of the kingdom of heaven as the place we go after we die. At least, that's where we go if we're clever. Heaven is not a place for foolish bridesmaids in awkward dresses. Heaven's for smart people in practical clothes. There will be no stupid people in heaven. Thank goodness! It's bad enough putting up with them here on earth. Good to know we don't have to spend eternity with a bunch of numbskulls.

But for Matthew, the Kingdom of Heaven is what the other gospel writers, Mark, Luke, and John, and even the Apostle Paul, call "The kingdom of God." The Kingdom of God isn't heaven, not like WE think of heaven. For the Jesus of the gospels, the Kingdom isn't other-worldly or after-lifey. God is going to slam the Kingdom of God, drop the Kingdom of Heaven, right smack down on earth. Jesus is going to come back. And he's going to fix things. Fix them here. Fix them now. All the poor people? They'll inherit the earth. All the smug, rich, powerful people? They'll be cast out. There will be blood.[1]

If we hear the parable as it's likely the early Christians would have heard it, the five CLEVER bridesmaids may not have had much, but they did have enough oil to get them through the waiting time until (Christ) the bridegroom comes. On the other hand, the five FOOLISH bridesmaids want to take what isn't theirs, to take the oil of the prepared poor, or, barring that, they'll use their wealth to go buy a slick imitation. They're kind of like, "Don't overpack; that's why God invented credit cards." But God doesn't accept American excess.

In the Gospel According to Matthew, the Kingdom of Heaven isn't about puffy clouds and angels with harps. It's about the Kingdom – the earthly Kingdom (the rightful King-ifying of earth) -- where the poor and oppressed are lifted up and the rich and powerful are put down, in the veterinary sense.

This is not sweet Jesus, meek and mild; this is Jesus who wants to stand the world on its head. If you're going to doze off, you'd better sleep with one eye open, especially us first-world people. Be ready. For you do not know the day or the hour of the Kingdom of Heaven.



But Jesus didn't come back. Jesus didn't come back to throw out the rich and lift up the poor to places of rightful inheritance. So, Christians learned to wait.

And we're still waiting. The rich are still getting richer; the poor are getting poorer.[2] The gap between rich and poor is at its widest since the Great Depression.[3] After 2000 years of waiting for Jesus to overturn the tables, Christians have pretty much resigned themselves to the Kingdom of Heaven being a thing "not of this world." Maybe things will be fairer in the next life.

Is that waiting? Or is it giving up? To their credit, none of the bridesmaids, not even the foolish ones, gave up and went back home. Even bad waiters are better than no waiter.



Speaking of waiters, how many of you have ever walked out of a place because you couldn't get waited on? A bank, a doctor's office, a restaurant?

"I'm never going back there! They wouldn't even wait on me!"

No, that's wrong. YOU wouldn't wait on THEM. YOU were the bad waiter.

"I fell asleep waiting for them!"

No, I think if you fall asleep, you're not waiting anymore. You're sleeping. If you're sleeping in the Waiting Room, it's no longer a Waiting Room; it's a Sleeping Room – with really uncomfortable beds.

We used to call them waitresses and waiters. Now we call them, "servers." Same job; new name. I got to wondering about that. Is being a waiter and a server just two sides of the same thing, especially when it comes to Jesus?

To wait well means you're staying awake, staying alert while you're waiting. A good waiter or waitress doesn't wait until you're clearing your throat, or waving like you're at a Taylor Swift concert trying to get their attention. A good waiter anticipates your needs, and serves you more water before you're sucking on ice cubes for the third time.

I think there's a parallel to how we can wait on Jesus in our day and time.

We can fall asleep waiting. We can sleepwalk through church, through faith, not really thinking too deeply about it, just going through the motions, doing just enough to get by.

We can give up waiting. We can choose to go wait somewhere else with a fancier waiting room, with better entertainment. We can just stay home and wait on ourselves. A lot of people do.

Or we can wait on Jesus by being his servers. We can wait on Jesus by being good servers who anticipate his needs, look to the needs of his people, serve the needs of the world around us.

Our Vision says that Lake Hills is "a church in the community, SERVING the community of God." We're servers. We wait by serving. We're called by Christ to SERVE. To Welcome, Worship, Educate, Celebrate, Tend and Send. We don't do it to bring the Kingdom. We don't do it to make Jesus finish faster. It's God's kingdom and God will bring it when God's ready.

We're called to WAIT by SERVING. We're called to make ourselves ready. We're called to get the earth ready. We're called to fill the world with oil and light enough to get it through the long night, until the bridegroom DOES come. We're called to be the WAITERS, the SERVERS, the hopeful people, hoping against hope for those who can't, waiting on those who need more time, and serving those who need care.

We're called to be good waiters, waiters who anticipate what God's children need, and who don't fall asleep on the job.

When we SERVE, we wait, and we wait well. We wait alert. We wait awake. We wait ready.



Jesus says,

"Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom…."

Honestly, I would have thought Jesus would say heaven is a place where there is no more waiting. But he doesn't. He says the kingdom of heaven is like this: a place where people wait. A place where people get tired of waiting. A place where people fall asleep, because, bless our hearts, that's what people do.

But Jesus doesn't stop there. He says the kingdom of heaven is more than just waiting. It's also the place where the bridegroom does come. It's a place where being a waiter, being a server has a point. He says the kingdom of heaven is a place where we will ALL wake up and see that the waiting and serving has NOT all been in vain.


If you're waiting on something…

If you're waiting on someone…

If you're waiting for Jesus to bring light to the darkness of your long night, I pray that you'll also stay awake to the faith that your waiting is also serving, serving the hope, serving the promise of Christ for you and for this world.

The bridegroom will come.

Keep your light burning.