Sunday, December 20, 2015

Alive and Kickin'

 Commerce Presbyterian Church
December 20, 2015

This morning’s sermon is about the gift of hospitality and welcome.

Luke’s tells the beloved story of Jesus and John’s birth--
the infancy narrative as it’s called has a special place in our hearts.

It’s a story I’ve heard since I was born.  
Growing up, in order to prepare our hearts to welcome Jesus at his birth, my family--parents, two older sisters, and myself-- performed the ritual of lighting the Advent wreath around our own table each Sunday leading up to Christmas each week, complete with scripture readings and, before you paint too idyllic a picture, this is what it really looked like:
We children begrudgingly read what we were asked to read.
when it came time to sing a familiar hymn
my mother’s voice carried us,
as my father moved his lips while giving us all piercing looks of discipline
while my sisters and I would trade glances across the table trying to make the others snicker and sneer.
We celebrated Christmas with the extended family as well.
We went all out and had our own Christmas pageant at Uncle Hugh’s and Aunt Julia’s house! Costumes prepared,  parts were assigned,
on the drive we crammed our lines--”Let us go now, even unto bethlehem to see this thing which is come to pass which the lord hath made known unto us.”
Always spoken in the King’s language.
Valiant attempts to capture the spirit of the season, don’t you think?  

This morning is no exception in the carrying on that tradition:
The arrival of Christmas comes in a short-- or long-- 5 days depending on your perspective.
Presents sit under our tree; this is driving Zia crazy-- we are calling her cray-Z,
she’s already opened at least one present and attempted to put it back--can you blame the four year old?!

We in Advent, waiting, but, the period of gestation is almost over.
Speaking of gestation, let’s use our imaginations a bit as we look at the story of two pregnant women this morning--Elizabeth and Mary.
Even with the significant exposure to this story growing up, I never paid much attention to their pregnancy--the significance of the baby John giving Elizabeth a little kick within...until Trasie became pregnant.

Trasie says it was during her 17th week of pregnancy with Ruby Gene when she first felt a little flutter within.  She really wasn’t sure…couldn’t believe it.  
But eventually, those flutters became kicks, punches, dancing and spinning…
It was most noticeable in the evenings. As the day was settling down, the fetus was revving up.
Our most memorable times that the fetus moved was when we sang to it in bed.  Since we chose to wait to know the gender, we had not assigned a name.
So we called the baby “Lieden”, named for, of all things, a blood clotting condition Trasie has which had lead to previously unsuccessful pregnancies.  
As baby Lieden was revving up in the evenings, we’d sing to it:
This little Lieden of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…This little lieden of mine..I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine let it shine let it shine.

And the fetus would respond like it was Dancing with the stars.
A miracle within--all of life, from cradle to grave a miracle--a gift.

Slide: Elizabeth and Mary
Elizabeth (left) visited by
Certainly, Elizabeth and Mary believed they were experiencing a gift from God.
But, their situations were quite different.

Let’s look more closely at this meeting between Elizabeth and Mary....
First, think about Elizabeth, there knitting booties perhaps--a most pious and righteous woman; descendant of the great priest Aaron, she was even married to a priest--
a preacher’s wife you might say.  
She and her husband surely lived most upright lives--knew the rules well, and knew who followed them and those who didn’t.  Elizabeth had done things the right way--waited a long time to become pregnant, and finally her prayers were answered.  Everyone in town would be willing to celebrate her pregnancy and her life!

Now let’s consider Mary.
Mary’s story is romanticized—pure and innocent—as we tell it today; it is difficult for us modern day readers to read much between the lines.

She lives in a small village, where everyone knows everything about everybody... she is unwed...and an angel?  
who would believe Mary’s story?   
Quite often--in Mary’s time, in our time--when a young girl become pregnant out of wedlock, this is not something celebrated….I recently saw a program on television where a teenage girl was kicked out of her house by her father when he found out she was pregnant---this doesn’t just happen on TV.  
We don’t know how Mary’s father reacted, but in Mary’s time, it could lead to severe punishment.

When the angel announced to Mary she would bear a child:  Mary “pondered these things in her heart,” and did she hide what was going on for as long as she could?
Until, Luke says, Mary “went with haste”  and ” remained with [Elizabeth] for three months”…
pregnant Mary skips town.. An 8 mile journey.  Alone? On foot?   
Was she praying the whole way that Elizabeth would believe her story?   
The visit could have been a disaster, but where else could she go, except to a wiser older relative’s home far from her village.
Tired from her journey, sees the house ahead.
She pauses for a moment, takes a deep breath, and approaches the house,
There at the door she musters one more act of courage...she knocks:
[Knock] “Anybody home?   It’s me, Mary.”
Elizabeth hears a knock at the door. Had she known Mary was coming?
“Mary?” questions Elizabeth to herself... a look of concern grows over her face.  
Had even she had heard of Mary’s “condition”... “Pregnant from an, hmmm.”

“Hello...Elizabeth?”, comes the voice of Mary from outside.

How should Elisabeth receive this woman standing at her door….
Elizabeth slowly rises from her chair, still not sure what to do or say:
And just then, what happens inside of Elizabeth’s belly?  
A kick.  A kick from within.
John the prophet from God, seems to have played prophet even inside the womb of Elizabeth….
he gave a little kick, maybe moving Elizabeth from any potential place of judgement or scorn to a place of hospitality and welcome….
A kick, a call, back to being present to her own miracle…and the gift of all of life.
A kick within….
She holds her belly, you can see the wrinkles of concern melt into calm, and then convert into a smile...into joy!  
It is after the kick, the scripture says, that Elizabeth is filled by the Holy spirit, and greets Mary with words of welcome and goodness, love and rejoicing:
“You are blessed Mary, and so is that child. Thank you so much for coming to see me..can you believe it, it was the child inside who knew it was you, he leaped for joy inside me! These children--yours and mine--are children of great promise, Dear Mary!”
Mary is relieved. She has been given the gift of welcome. The gift of Joy!

Throughout the story of the birth of our beloved Jesus, are stories of hospitality and rejection.  
Elizabeth welcomes Mary at the door after she made haste from her own hometown.
Pregnant Mary and Joseph were unwelcomed as they entered Jerusalem, until an innkeeper offers a barn.
Mary and Joseph welcome shepherds and wisemen to rejoice with them over the birth of their child.
Joseph and Mary were unwelcome in their own country and must flee as refugees after a tyrannical ruler--Herod--seeks to do them in....
and it is in Egypt, the same place where Joseph was received, where the Holy Family was welcomed and provided safe haven until they could return safely to their homeland.

Slide: Welcome
Welcome, Hedgehog, Animal
There are many stories being told this time of year.
Some are stories that would promote fear, judgement, and an unwelcoming posture towards others...
As Christians we must remember our Biblical stories told this time of year, and how they inform our lives and our place within them.  
When is a time in your life when you have been met with a warm welcoming spirit--especially when you may have been going through some difficulty?
when is a time you were met with an unwelcoming spirit? Which one of those spirits would you have considered “Holy”?

It is easy to allow a spirit of judgement, suspicion, ridicule and scorn to guide how we interact with those who find themselves in difficult situations…
It is during those times when we may need a little kick…
A kick in the you know what.  
To remind us to allow the holy spirit to conceive within us a spirit of welcome.
Like Elizabeth, you may well be welcoming the Christ, who is found in the guise of stranger, or an outcast or someone who is misunderstood and hurting.

Over the next five days, how many of us will be running around...with haste?
Perhaps looking for gifts to give?
Consider giving the gift of welcome and hospitality....

Who may be coming to church tonight or later this week that you haven’t seen in a long time or never met? Can you feel the baby john leap inside you?
prompting you greet them with a smile, “welcome, so glad to see you, what a special time of year”   

What about at work?  Who may be having it kind of rough this time of year? If you’re on break or if you run into them in the parking lot, pause to say “hello, how are you”  and listen to what they say.  Let that baby John Leap inside.  Be filled with the holy spirit.

Who’s are you getting together with this season? Are you looking forward to it...or dreading it :)?  Yesterday, I was at Trasie’s extended family gathering...I had this sermon in mind when I arrived!

Or, maybe you’re not going because…well,
Can you allow a little kick--of the Holy Spirit-- within to remind you of the gift of welcome you can give.

Let that little lieden..I mean little light shine…because of the promise of a child, prepare him room.
Five more days til he arrives!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

What Does God Want For Christmas?

Sunday, December 13, 2015 - Luke 3:7-18


                             for Commerce Presbyterian Church

Slide: Title
Do you think Christmas is more for children or for adults?

I think Christmas for children is wonderful.
I think it’s great for adults to relive that magical experience through children. The sugar plum fairies, letters to Santa, and the Christmas Eve anticipations -Twas the night before Christmas--can reawaken our sense of imagination and delight.

Christmas for adults, however, is another matter.
I hope there are not small children in the room, because my sermon may not seem very Christmasy :)

I don’t know about any of you, but as Trasie is my witness, I have a hard time getting into the Christmas spirit.
I relate more to four characters who tend to emerge this time of year...

Slide: What do they have in common--Grinch, Darius Rucker, Charlie Brown, John the Baptist?
In their own way all four challenge what seems to be the modern day way we observe Christmas.

Dr. Seuss’ reviled character, the Grinch,
But, really was actually onto something. He may have seen the early signs of what Christmas was becoming … people are headed in a direction of hyper consumerism, which misses the spirit of Christmas--so he tried to steal Christmas in order to preserve Christmas…
And he’s still at it.  The AJC reported he was arrested  in Moultre yesterday!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Nesting Instinct, Luke 1:68-79

Nesting Instinct

Dec 6, 2012, Commerce Presbyterian Church, GA
Slide: Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John
Zechariah Writes Down the
Domenico Ghirlandaio's Zechariah Writes Down the Name of His Son (1490,)

The story of Jesus’ birth is told in detail in the Gospel according to Luke, and it is one of the most beloved stories of all of Scripture. The story of Jesus’ cousin, John’s birth, is also part of this story and told in detail in Luke.
This morning I will read about an occurrence from John’s birth from the end of the first Chapter of Luke, verses 68-79, found on page 60 Red, 834 in Black pew bibles if you’d like to follow along.
It is a song sung by Zechariah.  Grounded in the present, Zechariah sings a song of praise, claiming and celebrating God’s liberation in the past, and a song of prophesy, of expectation, hopeful for what God will do in the not too far off future through the coming Savior, and his own son.
But before I read it, let’s step back and ask: Who was this Zechariah, the priest?
Let’s call him Zech for short. It’s kind of fun to think about how one becomes qualified to make it into the bible.  And I can really relate to this guy’s story. I’m a preacher, kind of a priest. Zech was a priest of the order of Abijah. Who? I don’t think for that reason he made it.
He was a husband to Elizabeth, who the bible says was a descendant of Aaron..As in Aaron the brother of Moses. Now, that definitely got Zech some “cred”..he married up:)
What’s more Elizabeth is a relative of Mary, as in the future the mother of Jesus. You can imagine people probably talked about him like this, “Hey, isn’t that Elizabeth’s husband. Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin.” I get it, people talk about me like that. “Isn’t that Trasie’s husband,” but that wasn’t all.
Zech also became a father...father of John the Baptist.  And there it is. Zechariah became well known because of one of his children. Now I really get it.  
I am certainly known for my children. Ruby’s dad or Zia’s dad!  
Zech made the bible because of his wife, Elizabeth, and his child, John the Baptist--kind of dumb luck, but hey, it was providential and he was faithful in his calling.
As with many births in the Bible, the birth of John is one not without strange events!
Zech and his wife  Elizabeth had not yet had children; they were beginning to think that they wouldn’t have any children. But, the angel Gabriel appears to Zech, “your prayer has been heard, you will have a child, but, not just any child!  The messenger who would prepare the way for the Messiah, who would deliver the people from their enemies!  
Zech, first terrified becomes incredulous, “can this be true?”
Wrong answer.  He is made mute.
Maybe a punishment,
or maybe a lesson to be learned about the power of silence.... For months, as the baby grows in Elizabeth’s womb, and Elizabeth is probably really loving the peace and quiet.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

All the Trees, Luke 21

All the Trees by C. Craig Topple
Commerce Presbyterian Church
November 29, 2015

Slide: Signs

The 1997 hit romantic comedy - fools rush in -
features Salma Hayek and Matthew Perry as two young people who meet by “fate”,
they have almost nothing in common,
and try to decide if they are meant to be together by relying on signs.
Any kind of sign, a necklace breaking, a flight delay,
a full moon..what does it all mean?  
Searching for answers a priest on the street says to no one in particular....”there are signs everywhere.”
Matthew Perry’s character engages him, “What? What was that?”
There are signs everywhere, he says, then he points a billboard sign...

“Signs signs everywhere there’re signs blocking up the scenery breaking my mind,
do this don’t do that can’t you read the signs!?”

Lots of these signs around
Well, can’t you read the signs?
Jesus says, signs, signs everywhere there’re signs…
pointing to destruction: signs in the sun, the moon (did any of you see it last night?, the stars!
On the earth there is distress among nations which is confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
Sounds like global warming to me.
Sounds like Isis to me.
Sounds like Fox news, CNN, or any other 24 news channel trying to get in our heads to me!

“Shall I go on?” Jesus asks: More signs?
Look at the fig tree.
Look at all the trees ...and their leaves....

Is Jesus saying we need to be able to read signs from nature better?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Belong, John 18:33-37

Commerce Presbyterian Church
November 22, 2015,
File:Christ the King Statue 1.
Slide: Christ the King Sunday

“That’s far out, dude! “
“Woah, that’s out of this world?”
Who says those things? (pause)

Is this kind of what Jesus is saying when he says to Pilate My kingdom is not of this world?
My kingdom is far out!
It’s out of this world!  

Today is Christ the King Sunday.
when we talk about what it means that Christ is King.

Original (3248 × 2160)Adventure Time oc- Princess
Slide: Princess Land
Is This when we play like my daughters love to play, magical kingdom, mostly it is princeses,
not too many princes around, yet,
Sometimes Mommy is the Queen.
And on occasion I’m the King, but that doesn’t mean I have any power.
Brinca, our dog is usually the servant, but I will fill that role sometimes too.  

That is about as close I get these days to experiencing any kind of monarchy.

Yet, here we are, affirming Christ the King
Thorns - crown detail.jpg
Slide: What type of King

If Christ is King then he has a kingdom,
he has subjects or followers - those who live according to his rule.

What does it mean to affirm Jesus king of our world?

It’s more than saying, “I believe in Jesus,” but I can still do whatever I want.
It’s more like, “I am a subject of Jesus and I seek to do what he wants.”
Iwe are not in control, Jesus is.
We do not determine how to govern, Jesus does.

doesn’t that sound fun?

Sounds a bit threatening:
I mean, Zia was playing this game with play-doe with her mommy and wanted her to do something...She began to assert her will,
“Mommy, I am the boss of you!  Do what I say!”

Is that how Jesus rules?

What happens if we don’t subject ourselves to Jesus?
When Trasie didn’t do what Zia wanted, Zia began to whine and cry.
does Jesus whine and cry when we don’t submit to his rule?
[whining]Come on Commerce!

Or, more menacing:
What happened back in the day when subjects of the king didn’t do what he said?
“off with their heads!”

What kind of King is Jesus?

What do we know about Jesus as king?

  • Jesus was not into forcing people to come along with him, it was always an invitation.
  • Jesus was not into threatening people into subjugation, those he seemed to challenge most, were leaders, people in power, who were oppressing the most vulnerable of society.
those who were ruling unjustly.

And those leaders didn’t like what Jesus was about,
so here is Jesus, this king--on trial.
Slide: Jesus before Pilate
beaten up, abandoned, his crown of thorns on his head--standing before a powerful ruler for the state --Pilate.  
Is this your king? Is he mine? he dejected? depressed? hopeless? he defiant, bold, resilient?

“They say you are a this true?” Pilate asks, then clarifies a bit,
“Even if you were a king, certainly, you would not be ruling over me.”
...I am not of your nation, not of your people.  
I submit to a different set of laws and rules, says Pilate.

But, Jesus changes the dynamic.  
Pilate thinks of the way earthy rule works.  
A particular person as king of a specific people in a specific region.
But Jesus expands this vision--my kingdom is not of this world--it’s far out!   

My kingdom consists of people from every tribe and tongue
You could be part of this kingdom,

My kingdom... is out of this world,

Really, there are many aspects of how Jesus rules different from the earthy rule we are most accustomed to.
You can probably name more ways than I can.
But, I want to focus on one way in which Jesus’ rule is different from earthly rule, found in this passage.  
Jesus, probably barely able to keep his feet standing there before Pilate says something remarkable; something quite particular about his kingdom…
“Were my kingdom of this world---my people, my followers, they would be fighting to keep me from being handed over...fighting to free me.  
But, my kingdom is not of this world. Therefore, they are not fighting.  

As many times as I had read this story of Jesus before pilate, I’d never really paid much attention to Jesus’ line there: My followers would fight, but my kingdom is not of this world.
What did he mean by that?

Was this comment about not fighting just in that moment--because it was necessary for him to go through this persecution and death?
Or is a general posture of those who are members of Jesus’ kingdom.  
Those who are his subjects do not fight?

Maybe it was just Jesus coming up with something to make himself look more threatening than he really was in that moment of dejection and imminent crucifixion?
Hey, Pilate, if I was from around here, my people would be doing battle with you, you’re lucky!

In Matthew it is written that when they came to arrest Jesus, Peter draws his sword to do battle. But, Jesus commands him to put it away.
My kingdom is not of this world.

How much does non-violence have to do with being a subject in Jesus’ kingdom?
Most kingdoms spend most of their time and resources building up armies…stock pile weapons.
what about Jesus far out kingdom?

This week in response to a question about what we should do about ISIS, I heard someone give an immediate concise response: “kill them all.”
Who was this person?
Was it said jokingly or was there an element of sincerity?
Was it a male or a female?
Was it an older person or a younger person?
Did this person hold a master’s degree or didn't hold high school diploma?

More importantly, was it someone who claims to a be a Christian or someone of a different religion or no religion at all?
Kill them all.
Was it you? Was it me?

“My followers would be fighting to preserve me, but my kingdom is not of this world.”

When you feel threatened, or someone seeks to do you harm, what is your natural response?

In response to the terrible attacks of the twin towers on 9/11/01,
The majority of a country that claims to be followers of Jesus said, “Kill them all!”  
I was right there with then President Bush when he declared war…
14 years later that war continues...and what has come as a result?

After the tragic events in Paris less than two weeks ago,
the drum beats calling for fighting are growing louder and louder.  
For those who follow the stock market, the prices of weapons manufacturers shot up last week: (RTN, BO)

Now that the president has been given unprecedented freedom to exercise military force since 9/11, something that used to be a decision of congress;
Questions of the media to the president are:
“We have such a powerful military, we have strong allies, when are we going to kill them all!” --paraphrase of Jim Acosta’s question in Turkey press conference.

While the response of the president indicated increased military efforts to “kill them all”
No answer would satisfy that kind of blood thirst.

What kind of response are you hoping for?

It’s easy to fall in ranks when members of your tribe and nation are shouting louder and louder to resort to violence.
Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Glenn Greenwald observed:
These are “potent instincts in human nature—our tribalistic instinct, our desire for vengeance, our desire to otherize people and then destroy them. When you see carnage in Paris—I’m sure it’s true for you, I know it’s true for me—all of us have that impulse to say, "The people who did this are monsters, and we want to destroy them." (Glenn Greenwald as quoted on Democracy Now! 11/19)

There is potential aggression in all of us when we feel threatened or scared; to defend ourselves or defend that which we think is not being defended properly, and to prevent it from happening to us...even if it means keeping vulnerable refugees out

as I stand before you who profess Jesus and Lord on this Christ the King Sunday to preach, I have to ask: “are we subject to a different kind of rule?

My followers would fight to defend, to preserve, to protect, but my kingdom is not of this world.

Slide Jesus before Pilate (b)
Jesus says something else remarkable in this moment before Pilate:
“for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

A wonderful reminder, if anything I ever say from the pulpit or anywhere else doesn’t sound true, spend time with it, search your heart, listen not for my voice but for the voice of the one who came into the world to testify to the truth.

Many voices cry out to influence:

Listen for truth:

And does the voice of Jesus sound like truth when he said:  

Turn the other cheek,
Pray for your enemies.
Love your enemies.
Do not worry.
Do not fear,
Forgive, not seven times, but 70x7 times

Those are the orders of this commander named Jesus.

Over this past summer, a young man set foot in a church in Charleston, and after sitting with those people for over an hour opened fire and killed many.

As threatened as many of us may have felt in that moment:
There weren’t many who cried out for vengeance, “Kill them all”. Maybe it was too close to home
Who would the “them all” be in that instance?
Who is the “them all” in any instance?

In response to the Charleston attacks, people across the country marveled at how the victims of that tragedy were so quick to forgive the assailant.
“We have no room for hate.
I forgive you.” declared one relative of a victim to the assailant:

Another, the daughter of Ethel Lance, said,  “I forgive you...You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. [God] have mercy on your soul.” (Quoted from Washington Post, “I Forgive You,” by Mark Berman)

My kingdom is not of this world.  
Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

I want to close with another image of Christ the King.
If followers of Jesus are not to be about fighting, and seeking revenge, what are they supposed to be about?

In the gospel of Matthew it is written:
The Son of Man will come in his glory, and all the angels with him, and he will say: "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."

There is a certain sense of security that comes when we follow a leader.  
There are many would-be-leaders right now hoping we will go along with them.

When I went over the sermon with Trasie she asked,
Why would we subject ourselves to Jesus rule?
It is, after all, kind of far out!
But Trasie told me, following Jesus who empowers her to forgive, who challenges her on a daily basis to seek the serve others...this gives her a real sense of security.
Security in her relationship with God.
Trusting that her King Jesus is sovereign, and can lead for her own sake and for the sake of the world.

My Kingdom is not of this world--it’s out of this world!

Being a king for Jesus means:
Though he was in the form of God,
he did not count equality with God as something to be grasped,
but he emptied himself...
And took the form of a servant.

Let us pray.
Holy God, in Jesus you have revealed the truth of your kingdom…
You call us and call us to follow, but it is not an easy path.
Your call to forgive, goes against our tendencies to fight back when we are threatened or hurt.
Your call to be a people who serve, goes against our tendencies to take care of ourselves, first.
Your call to align with Jesus and his kingdom so often doesn’t fit with the political affiliations presented to us.
Take my heart, take our hearts, and minds, and mold them into your will, for our sake, for your glory and for the sake of this broken world.
Thank you, that through your son Jesus, we can belong.