Monday, March 23, 2015

Rick Carroll: 22 March 2015 “Peculiar Glory” John 12:20-33

 Ann Weems is a best-selling poet, writer, speaker, and conference leader.  She is also an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church. Ms. Weems has written a poem that echo’s this morning’s Jeremiah and John themes. She speaks to broken covenants, and necessary judgment.
 Listen to how she captures the essence of the human condition in the first paragraph of her poem, “We Would See Jesus.”

 “Broken covenant. Broken covenant. Broken covenant.
 Over and over and over again.
 Faithless faithless faithless.
 Jeremiah, O Jeremiah,
 I’ve seen how Rembrandt painted you:
 Your head in your hands, eyes downcast,
Shoulders slumped.
God has been in covenant with faithless people.
But in exile they pray for forgiveness,
Reminding God who God is:
A God of covenant love
A God of mercy.
They promise to repent.
God responds:
I have loved you
          With an everlasting love:
Therefore I have continued
          My faithfulness to you.

 Weems in not bashful about rightly convicting us as broken and faithless people. Often our head is in our hands. Despite our cry for mercy, we sense in her poem God’s displeasure.  Yes, “I have loved you…so I have continued my faithfulness to you,” but you, oh, you are a faithless people.
  Before God can raise the hammer again, we protest. Yes, Lord, we have our “moments.” But we are, deep inside, good people. Our hearts are in the right place. Please Lord, give us another chance.

 I believe Weems’ poem is an honest reflection of our human condition. Despite our good intentions, we can be the opposite of who God needs us to be. Despite our good intentions, there is evil in us. Despite our good intentions, our actions do not always match our words.

    At the inauguration of Bill Clinton’s presidency, Billy Graham, arguably the world’s most famous Christian Evangelist, was asked to bring an inaugural prayer. It was not easy for him to get to the podium that day, by then he had been a minister for fifty years, he was aging and weak, yet he pulled himself up to the podium. He got God’s attention on behalf of the nation, and then went right to the opening statement of his prayer: “Oh God, we have sinned…”

The shock of this opening statement was like a slap in the face. You could almost feel the guilty downward glance of the nation as Billy Graham publicly put his finger on the real problem with us and the world. “Oh God, we have sinned.”

 We know this is true, but we do not like to hear publically what we struggle with privately. Our guilt is ever before us, and it simmers deep in our souls.
 So we try to soften the truth. We work hard to rid ourselves of the negative influence of words like sin, and hell, and guilt, and wrath. We are the “Frozen Chosen” after all, not the “Hell Fire and Damnation” believers.
 That day, hearing the word sin on television, coming from the steps of the capitol, with the whole world watching, was a jolt to our sensibility. Billy Graham’s prayer, “Oh God, we have sinned,” pins us all to the wall.
Being so tightly pinned, God should be breaking off our relationship and casting us into those hellish and damning fires.  Isn’t that exactly what we deserve?

  Not according to Jeremiah, not according to John, and thankfully, not according to our God.

  Our Lord promises in Jeremiah, “I will make a new covenant with…” them. “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” “For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

 John’s gospel then tells us how God will do these things. God will judge the world. But from that judgment, God will offer his son to take our place. Jesus will come to the hour of his death not for our glory, but for God’s.
  Dear ones, our God is faithful to us, our Lord Jesus is faithful to God.
We have been rightly convicted, we have sinned. God’s judgment of that sin is self- evident. We know what we deserve.  We have been faithless again, and again. We have broken God’s covenant again, and again.
 Yet, here is our God, evidence and reason to the contrary, doing something shocking.

 Our God wants to write a new contract with us. Our God wants to make a new promise with us. Why? Why would our God do this? God should cut and run.

 Yet, that is not what God does. Because our God is a God of covenant love, a God of mercy, a God who continues being faithful to us, our God brings a new covenant, not of more written laws, but of the Spirit. The old written covenant  ends in death; but under the new covenant, the Spirit gives life.

 One of my home-church pastors, Tom Curry, says that God’s everlasting love in response to our sin “scandalizes, us, constrains our agendas, draws us out of ourselves, and into the strange polity of his body,” God’s church.
  We are scandalized and constrained because we cannot live our agendas. We are drawn out of our selfish selves because, we cannot follow the will of our sin-filled ego when faced with the profound love that takes us kicking and screaming with Jesus to the cross.

 To the cross where we are to die to self, and be born again, free of sin. Free from all ego driven infatuation, we will forever be wedded to this new life, a life of unrestrained love for God and all of God’s creation. Be they friend or foe, good or bad, loved one or enemy.

 But there is more.

 Not only does our God love us unconditionally, our God showers us with God’s infinite grace. We often forget about God’s grace. We often forget God brings the covenant of that grace into our lives through our relationship with Jesus Christ.

 Though our relationship with Jesus, in the form of the promise of salvation to sinful humanity, we know firsthand God’s grace and God’s glory. If this truth does not humble and silence our protest we are truly scandalized and unworthy.

 Yet, we persist.  Despite Billy Graham’s prayer, “Oh God, we have sinned,” we continue to whine! “Yes Lord, I have sinned, but I have several really good excuses.”

   Is there no hope for us?
  Yes, sisters and brothers, there is. God is not buying our whining. God knows us all too well. God knows what’s in our hearts. We know it too.  We love God. We need God in our lives. It is time we admit it, and do something about it. Otherwise Jesus died for nothing.

  What then are we to do? Are we worried it is too late for us? Has our time passed? Are these God’s questions or our own?

 Dear ones, Jesus teaches us about life, and death. He teaches us how to live above our sin. He teaches we are to be faithful to God. There is no time line for these truths. We are never too young, or too old. We are to live God’s will of love and service, to God and others, always and in all things.
  Loving and serving God in this way certainly has consequences, consequences, and by God’s grace, good news. Jesus tells us, “Whoever serves me, the Father will honor”.  

   God will honor us! Yes, God will honor us. If we step up and make this decision to be all-in, loving and serving God and others, always and in all things, God will honor us! God will bring blessings, and love, and hope, always and in all things. With friend and foe, good or bad, loved one or enemy, even when it is not so evident.

 This may be too much grace for us to bear. This may be too much love for us to realize.  Lord, did you not hear our pray, “We have sinned.”
 Yes, God hear us. Now God wants to know “Have you not heard me!” “I created you, I am in love with you, and I want to be with you forever.”
  Yes, this life is messy. Yes, it is not easy to be bound to one another forever. It is not easy to be family, or community, or church.

But here we are. Weak and dependent, sinful and unredeemable, bound together to serve the one who loves scandalized folk despite themselves.
  Our God has continued to be faithful to us. Our God believes in us, and we are being called to the simplest life, to believe in God, and to serve God in our love for one another.

 Dear ones, it is for this reason that we have come to this hour.
What now do we have to say?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever, Amen    

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Called to Dream

Called to Dream

A sermon given by Rev. Jonathan Scanlon

Genesis Presbyterian Church

January 18, 2015 - The 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

          1 Samuel, chapter 3, begins very poetically with the words, “the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” The Hebrew word translated as “rare” means not only uncommon, but also precious. And God chooses Samuel to tell this rare and precious word to the people. If God’s word was considered rare in those days, do we question if it is borderline absent from the world today? Do we know what is it like to live in a world where hearing the word of the Lord is rare?

         This was a time of spiritual desolation, religious corruption, political unrest and social upheaval. In other words, bad things were happening at the time the young boy Samuel came on the scene in the Bible. It is Samuel who will be tapped as the prophet to make room for and identify the King both Saul and David. The people did not have a vision of how they were to live together and dreams of building the kingdom of God because they were not being lead. The leadership over ancient Israel was corrupt, and not doing their job. Of course, Israel cannot see God in and among the community if Eli, the main priest of the day, remains too blind to see how his sons are abusing power.

Eli's sons have been using their political status as priests to satisfy their own desires. They were considered scoundrels who had no regard for the Lord or for their duties to the people as priests. Israel cannot listen to God when the priests are using their positions of privilege to satisfy and fatten themselves. When the religious and political leaders of the day are blind to sin, the word of the Lord becomes more difficult for the people to hear and apply.

It was a time for a change. This priestly family of Eli's could no longer call all the shots and their poor choices were guiding the people farther and farther away from God. God chose to intervene and to look within the body of people for new leadership to preserve God's presence with the chosen community. The Lord took a woman named Hannah who could not have children and blessed her with a son who she named Samuel because God had heard her prayers asking for a child. Hannah allowed her son to study with Eli the priest because she was so grateful to God for giving her a child.

Samuel's call to be a prophet came one night when he was sleeping in the temple. This is a story of delayed recognition of God's call. Though he worked alongside Eli in the house of the Lord doing priestly things for the people of Israel, the scripture is quick to mention that Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. Faith is not something we do but rather it is what calls and redirects our life to live for God. Working with a priest, working in the church and doing church work out in the community does not instill faith in us.

We may come to know more about ourselves; we may come to grow in our understanding of God, growing in our faith through working with others, but it must begin with a belief in a God who calls us to live for something greater than ourselves and to find our place in building the Kingdom to come. We must first respond to God's call in faith for direction in our lives.

To be called by God means that God knows one's name and, in knowing one's name, exercises a more personal and powerful influence on the person. Samuel could not hear and understand God's call for his life by himself, and needed Eli's help to listen and discern. Listening to God's call for our lives requires both the age and wisdom of Eli supporting the eager youth and energy of Samuel.

Without Eli's priestly expertise and years of personal experience with God, Samuel would not have come to know God and hear the Word of the Lord to share with the people of Israel.

Ours is a God who knows us each individually and wants to be made known to us. Earlier we heard the reading of one of my favorite of Psalms, number 139, which reminds us what it is like to be in relationship with God. The Psalmist describes what is like to know God and to understand how we are known by God.

It is only because God is universally present, ultimately powerful, and all-knowing that provides for such a profound sense of an immediate and deeply personal relationship with God our creator. God is our most constant companion with us at every moment. Transcendent enough to overcome any earthly power, immanent enough to be present in the midst of whatever happens, and gracious enough to care about the destiny of each of God's creatures.

God instructs Samuel first to listen. We all need some lessons in listening, and a prophet cannot speak for God unless he first takes time to be attentive and hear what he is to say. The name Sam-U-el literally means "God has heard". God has heard the cries of Israel and is ready to respond with a new direction in leadership. This narrative is full of symbolism like the mention of the lamp of God that had not yet gone out.

Sure, the actual temple’s candle may still have been burning at that moment but, more importantly, this texts reassures us God had not left the temple. God has not left the people to fend for themselves. God only seems to be sleeping. But God is much more present than we know. God calls many to speak truth to power and lead communities toward righteousness.

 This weekend we honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unlike Samuel, Dr. King did not hear the voice of God call to him in a church, though God did have a plan for his life that was much different than what he imagined growing up.

It has been documented that originally Martin Luther King Jr. did not aspire to be a national civil rights leader. He had gone into the ministry mostly because his father was a pastor, and he always did what “Daddy King wanted for him to do. Martin would have preferred a more quiet life as a professor, possibly aspiring to become President of his beloved Morehouse College someday. Through an odd turn of events, as a young pastor, he was thrust into the forefront of the Montgomery bus boycott. He came home late one night, tired and frightened.

He wasn't in a church, but rather in his kitchen when the phone rang. An angry and disgruntled voice on the other end said, "We're gonna get you!”

King stood in his kitchen, frozen in fear. He wanted to call Daddy King for reassurance and advice. But Daddy King wasn't there. Then he said it was like he heard a voice say, "Martin, you do whats right. You stand up for justice. I'll be with you." He had heard his name called. He knew God wanted him to serve.

He knew God wanted him to dream. His life was forever changed and through his life, used so well by God, the world was forever changed.

Like Samuel, we may be set apart for service, participating in the life of the church and having some years of religious instruction without really knowing the Lord in a direct and personal way. And, like Samuel, we too may be sleeping. We do not fully sense the divine all around us. Exhaustion has so dulled our hearts, minds and souls that we can work all day, even in the temple, but never hear the one God who has heard us. But the voice of God calls our lives to live for something more and will not allow us to hide.

Like Dr. King we are called to dream. We are to allow ourselves the time to listen to God's Word for us through scripture, through prayer, through our worshiping in community and through what we experience in our broken and fearful world. We are to speak truth to power and execute the kingdom and righteousness here on earth. We, too, are called each in our own individual way.

We are called to listen for the voice of God and to hear what disruptive and dangerous direction God's call may, and will, lead. God's voice is one that creates life as well as changes life, forever.

Dr. William Willimon, a Bishop in the Methodist church, once received a phone call while he served as the campus minister at Duke University. An angry father of one of his students explained how upset he was with Willimon and held him personally responsible for the poor choice the father felt his daughter was about to make in life.
"Me?" Dr. Willimon asked.

As it turns out the girl's father was upset because his graduate school bound daughter had just informed him she planned, from his perspective, to throw it all away and go live with Presbyterian missionaries in Haiti. "Isn't that absurd!" the father shouted over the phone. "She earns a degree in mechanical engineering from Duke and all she plans to do with it is to go dig ditches in Haiti."

Willimon quickly quipped, "Well, I doubt she's received much training in the Engineering Department here at Duke for that kind of work, but she's probably a fast learner and will get the hang of ditch digging in a few months." This only irritated the already fuming father even more.

“Look,” he said, “this is not a laughing matter. You are completely irresponsible to have encouraged her to do this. I hold you personally responsible.”

As the conversation progressed, Willimon pointed out that both her well-meaning, but obviously unprepared, parents were the one who started this ball rolling in their daughter’s life. They were the ones who had her baptized as an infant, read Bible stories to her as a child, took her to Sunday school and church, and let her attend the events of the high school youth group. William Willimon reminded the father, “You’re the one who introduced her to Jesus, not me.”

The father meekly responded, “But all we ever wanted her to be was a Presbyterian.”

Where and to what is God calling you in this world where the word of the Lord is rare? Where and to what is God calling this church? Do whats right. You stand up for justice. I'll be with you. Speak Lord, for your servants are listening. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. May it be so? Amen.