Sunday, September 24, 2006

Since I didn't post a sermon last week, I'll post this photo--which is a sermon in itself. I guess this is why they call them the Smokies!

September 24 Sermon--Who's the Greatest?

Sermon Texts: By the way, if you click on the sermon texts, it will take you to the scripture online.
James 3:13 - 4:8
Mark 9: 30-37

First and last, last and first. It’s never really mattered to me. You see—my name is Michael Nathan Mattox. Yes—I have always been in the middle of the line. I’m sure you’ve all experienced the line I speak of—the line to recess or lunch. Teachers would always line us up in alphabetical order by our last name. Just so the Zimmermans and the Watsons and the Yandells wouldn’t be completely scarred by a childhood of always being last though, sometimes the teachers would get us into line for recess or lunch from the end of the alphabet to the front. That put all the Adamses and Barkers in their place, didn’t it! It was if the words of Jesus came alive on those rare occasions when we’d line up in reverse order. “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” I used to see it as my job as preacher’s kid to remind the kids in line of that bit of wisdom. But the teachers never thought of the big chunk of us in the middle. Never did we line up from the middle to the first and last. I suppose some of the time they’d try to mix us up by making us line up by our given name—but it didn’t make any difference to me. What does it mean to be a servant? What does it mean to be great? How can the last be first and the first last? What does it mean to welcome the children in our midst? How does one gain wisdom? These are some of the questions put forth by today’s scriptures. I can just see the scenario play out in my head. Jesus has just tried to explain the nature of his mission here on earth. The Son of Man must be betrayed and crucified. The 12 are thick headed about it—they don’t understand—they don’t WANT to understand. Instead, they are caught up in the glory of being one of the chosen few. Jesus is walking with them through Galilee, familiar turf where the disciples probably feel safe and glad to be back home. Their excitement about their time roaming around the countryside as Jesus’ posse spills over into gloating. Jesus overhears something. He rolls his eyes, impervious to their shallowness and ignorance. “What is it that you’re arguing about?” The look on his face says he knows but he wants them to admit it. They hang their heads--silent. I see the bald spot on top of Peter’s curly head as he carefully studies the dirt on the floor. They don’t want to admit the fact that they were arguing about who was the greatest. Arguing about the greatest and perhaps who it is that will take over as the leader after Jesus is betrayed and crucified just like he said he would be. They don’t really get what Jesus is saying, anyway. Jesus sits them down and gives them a little lesson. A child, a little girl, has been pestering the group for a few minutes now, trying to find some company. He takes her and sits her in his lap. “You welcome her and you welcome me. You welcome me and you welcome God.” There it is, as simple as that. “You think you’re great because you were hand-picked by me? Well, I am manifest in everything that you would call lowly. I’m that little girl you wouldn’t give two thoughts, I’m a housefly buzzing around your face. What I have to say isn’t for this world and its idea of greatness—I’ve come to turn this world upside down. I’m here to proclaim God’s favor for the poor, the prisoners, and the oppressed. I’m here to take my throne in Jerusalem on a donkey. My throne will be the executioner’s cross.” The question of “Who’s the greatest” occupies a lot of our time here on earth unfortunately. The simple way that Mark explains the disciple’s argument makes the discussion sound petty and beneath us, but we probably know deep down that the argument involves all of us. James says in his letter, “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”Envy and selfish ambition—in some circles, these traits are considered admirable. “It’s a dog eat dog world!” “Look out for #1!” “IF you don’t get ahead, you’ll be left behind!” We call it “competitiveness.” Envy and Selfish ambition are glamorized on television and in our culture. Those who put others first are fools, or saints. We hold up people like Mother Theresa when asked to think of someone who lived their life putting others first. We fail to recognize that putting others first is and can be a daily activity carried out by regular old disciples like you and me. It doesn’t have to be left to the saints and the na├»ve dreamers and patron saints of lost causes. Jesus has a strange idea of greatness doesn’t he? He believes it involves welcoming—welcoming those we typically ignore. He uses children as an example. Children may seem immature to many of us, but they score high points in Jesus’ book. The culture of the time regarded children as fairly worthless in comparison to Rabbis. Rabbis liked to converse with other Rabbis—to hammer out the finer points of the Law with those educated enough to follow the conversation enough without a lot of extra explanation. Jesus was a strange kind of Rabbi. He preferred the company of children to other Rabbis. He hammered out the finest point of the law by putting things in terms that children could understand. Instead of behaving as though the children couldn’t understand the law, Jesus complained that it was the Rabbis who couldn’t understand. A key ingredient to “getting it” in the mind of Jesus is the act of welcoming. Have you ever been truly welcomed? What does it feel like to be welcomed? I believe there is a connection between welcoming and serving. Have you ever been truly served? I think the root of serving another and welcoming another is in the approach we have to the person we are welcoming and serving. If you approach another person, even a child, as possessing sacred worth, you see that the Sacred is in that person. This is why Jesus says, “IF you welcome a little child, you welcome me and God through me.” True service and welcome does not amount to how much sweat pours out of skin as we diligently work to make things better for someone else. True welcoming does not amount to how clean our home is and ready for others to come and stay with us. These kinds of behaviors, though they can be genuine, can also be a by-product of our quest to prove “Who’s the greatest.” Instead, true welcoming and true service grows out of a condition of the heart. It’s a condition that holds all of God’s creation as being valued by the Creator. It is “drawing near to God” in the words of James. Welcoming and serving become conduits of God’s grace if we draw near to God in our heart. When I think of this scripture, I think of one of my childhood Sunday school teachers at Sequoia United Methodist Church in Fayetteville, Mrs. Dorothy Lindquist. Mrs. Lindquist was a school teacher in Minnesota before retiring in Fayetteville. She died a couple of years ago in her mid-90’s. When I was a pupil of hers (she always called us her pupils) she was in her 80s and recently widowed. Mrs. Lindquist was a traveler—in fact she traveled on every continent, and when she did she always thought of her Sunday school class. I remember how we always used to gather around the Sunday school table and gawk at the coins she brought from far away places. Then, to our astonishment, she would invite us to choose a coin to take with us—our very own. Mrs. Lindquist didn’t just buy our affection with foreign coins and bills—she cared for us. She taught us the stories of the Bible, and we knew that we were always welcome in her presence. Children would sit close to her in the worship service, and she’d put her bony arm around us. She valued us because she knew that God valued us, and because she believed that about us, we kids learned to understand that about ourselves. She enabled God’s love by welcoming and serving. Her wisdom and experience might have been highly valued by some of the other adults in the church—but she chose to share her wisdom and her experience with the little children first. Jesus was a lot like Dorothy Lindquist. Jerry Goebel writes, “Jesus didn’t have to set up a “photo-op,” like some politician, chasing down a child and wresting it from some passer-by, nor was there any struggle to hold the child in his lap once he reached for him or her. A child was a touch away from Jesus; a child came gleefully onto his lap and there felt as warm and protected as a kitten balled in her mother’s fur. Who is this God of ours that his very son would be found among children who felt so close to Jesus that his touch would be familial?” When you leave today, take a look at that picture that hangs on the wall opposite the sanctuary. I love that this church has the picture of Christ blessing the children in our fellowship hall. It says so much about the God we worship. Goebel writes, “Our God passionately loves his creation. God’s love pours out like a waterfall plunging unquestionably over the abyss. At the core of that love is not the fittest, not the greatest, but the weakest, the most vulnerable. The fact that God’s son, the Prince of the Universe, makes this statement with an anonymous child in his lap is evidence for where our Lord’s heart resides. The child is anonymous to history but not to Jesus. The symbolism of this act will always stand as one of the greatest indications of God’s true character. Nestled in the lap of salvation, wrapped in the arms of infinite love, how can we ever doubt God’s intent to love his people back to wholeness?”When we are motivated to love others because God loves and values them, we are living and loving as God intends. What kind of a person do children love? That is the kind of person that Jesus was and that is the kind of person he called “the greatest.” That is the kind of person who resembles our God.At the end of his article, Goebel asks, “What kind of character must one foster to be loved by the littlest ones? What kind of traits are we to engender to become like Jesus? Should we strive to become smarter, richer, tougher, and more practical? Or should we instead strive to be ever more compassionate, available, vulnerable and extravagant in love? To become the greatest, we must become the one in whom the least little child would find comfort and love.”

Monday, September 11, 2006

Sept. 10 Sermon, When the Gospel Goes to the Dogs

Sermon Texts:
James 2: 1-17
Mark 7: 24-37

“When the Gospel Goes to the Dogs”
I’m sure many of you own dogs. If they are inside dogs, they no doubt know where to go when it is dinner time. There may be a “rule” not to feed Ginger during dinner, but somehow or other, these animals seem to know how to get a good scrap or two out of us. Our family dog in Little Rock would just as soon eat the napkins that we use at dinner as actual scraps. I don’t know if she has lost a few marbles, or what, but she LOVES eating napkins. It doesn’t matter if it’s been used or not. In fact, my parents have to put trash cans in strategic locations so that she doesn’t eat every paper product that finds its way into the trash. “Crazy Ginger” loves begging for food at the table, and to my mother’s chagrin, Dad, Haley, and I usually indulge her.
Our cats on the other hand, aren’t content to sit under the table. They believe their rightful spot is in a chair sitting at the table, eyeing we who sit and eat there, or better yet, getting up onto the table and sniffing at our plates, deciding if they would like to have any of what we have. This behavior usually gets a good swat or squirt of the water bottle, and a “Get down, you stupid cat!”
I wonder what Jesus would have thought of this kind of behavior out of my cats. He certainly had some ideas about the placement of children and dogs at the dinner table—but he might’ve just not been familiar with cats.
I must admit that today’s gospel reading is probably my least favorite presentation of Jesus in all the Gospels. This same story is presented in Matthew, except Matthew tells that the woman shows a little more persistence, following Jesus and the disciples, calling out in desperation—which Jesus carefully ignores, until finally he spins around and says, “It is not right to take the food from the children at the table and throw it to the dogs.” Mark allows for a little bit of wiggle room for the woman at least. He phrases Jesus’ words as “First the children must eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Either way, it seems kind of harsh. It also seems like Jesus is ignorant of the direction his movement will take. Perhaps he is changed by this encounter with this particular woman. Not only does Jesus seem unknowing of the future of his church, He seems to reveal a racism, a prejudice, that is not befitting an incarnation of the one and only God—the creator of all people and Nations.

Sometimes, it is important to pay attention to what bothers us.

It is not right to take what is given to the children and throw it to the dogs. Here, Jesus is echoing the prevailing attitude among Jews of this era to the surrounding people.
As in most cases of intense nationalistic and racial pride, the Jewish understanding of superiority was born out of centuries of experiencing the brunt and humiliation of oppression and defeat. The Egyptians could point to the pyramids and their mark on science and religion. The Greeks needed only to survey a map to note the range of their influence. The Romans poured concrete, built roads, maintained order, perfected war and trade. The Jews had no earthly cause to celebrate their culture, so they turned to a Divine reason to gird themselves up. No one really cared about the Jews. They meant nothing to anyone. They had as much influence in the Roman world as western Kansas has on the American world. They were only known as being fiercely obstinate about their religion and their God.
Jesus was formed in this culture. He probably heard jokes as a teenager about the Syro-Phonecians or the Samaritans. He knew what it meant to socialize with these kinds of folk.
Yet Mark tells us that he went 100 miles out of his way to visit the very despised region that was populated by these kinds of folks: Tyre and Sidon.
Mark tells us it is because he doesn’t want to be noticed. He wants a little Rand R. He wants a Labor Day weekend. But, it is not to be. Mark tells us that even here his fame has been spread far and wide. The woman who comes to the house to visit him knows of his power to heal—and she wants a bit of it for her daughter.
The woman is identified as a Syro-Phonecian. She is Gentile by race and she is Greek in culture. She is probably wealthy—as the Greek culture held its greatest influence over those of privilege. Tyre was known among Jews, especially Galilean Jews, as a region that oppressed the Jewish farmers of Galilee. They would buy up all the grains that were produced in Galilee, and then in times of need, would not distribute any back to the people in Galilee. Tyre was a city with a hungry appetite, and not just for the food of Galilee. Tyre’s politics and military also spread its influence far beyond its “city limits.” It was a “city state” that fed off the sweat and labor of the farming communities around it, and as most of us who live in rural settings know, that relationship benefits the cities much more than the country.

Have you ever been desperate? You have to understand that it was not like the Syro-Phoneacians thought of themselves as inferior and undeserving. They were inheritors of the great Greek culture. The Jews who were so proud and so narrow minded to worship only ONE God were considered to be about on par with the reverence and awe that we hold for hillbillies! What is evident in this text is Jesus’ hesitance to heal the woman’s daughter because of her race—but we must also assume that it took a great bridge in the cultural divide for the woman to approach Jesus in the first place. It would be akin to one of us going up into the hills in search of a hillbilly medicine woman to cure a disease that we had no other hope for.

Sometimes it is desperation that drives us to Jesus—and I hope it is broadcast loud and clear that that particular motivation to seek the healing of Christ is written of and honored in our oldest stories of our Savior. We look with shame on desperation because it flies in the face of our national and cultural religion—individualism. Desperation means we have run out of resources to do it on our own. Desperation is the ultimate foil to the ideal of Rugged Individualism. Some people die in desperation because they are too proud to reach out their hands and cry out for a Savior. We tend to honor those heroes who die for the national and cultural religion of the Holy Individual.

We are told by James that it is a holy act, a saving act, to stand up for those who are in desperate situations. James lifts up the people who are poor and naked and hungry, and points to our very real response—someone else will deal with it. I’m too busy, I’m too important, I’m too……But James says this is our encounter with God. When mercy is shown, we are judged with mercy. When no mercy is shown, no mercy is shown us in the end. James says quite succinctly, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” What good news for us! James is saying that if we live mercifully, we will be shown mercy! It is really kind of easy to show mercy. I think it is actually quite a bit easier than judging. Judgment requires us to have all our ducks in a row so that we can be efficient judges. Sometimes, being merciful is simply an outgrowth of my failure to have my life straightened out in the first place! How can I act with judgment against someone else if I am lacking in the same area?
And yet we are tempted to act with judgment anyway aren’t we? It feels good in the short term to show judgment. Self-righteous indignation is intoxicating, no matter how ill-founded it actually is. It gives so much pleasure to have the ability to step on someone else’s neck, even when someone may have their boot on ours! It seems to take our attention away from all that and our own troubles if we can focus on someone else’s for a while—point out their wrongs and their problems. It is even more gratifying to know exactly what someone else needs to do to get things straitened out, and to tell them, or anyone else who will listen, about it. It is gratifying because it tends to get my mind off of how I don’t have things straitened out myself. But who cares about that when someone else’s problems are so glaring and obvious!
The encounter we are told of in Mark’s gospel is an encounter of mercy overcoming judgment. Jesus had judged the woman unworthy to receive his healing power. He had met her request with denigration—referring to her and her people as “dogs.” However, the woman took his own words and emptied them out—filling them instead with another meaning. She wins the argument, and because of her persistence she is awarded her request. Jesus says, “Because you have said this, your daughter is healed.” Jesus acknowledges being bested at his own style of debate. He had made a career thus far out of taking the commonly held and understood interpretation of law and custom and turning them around to broaden them to be more inclusive.
It is after this encounter with the Syro-Phonecian woman that Jesus again displays a miraculous feeding. And whereas the feeding of the 5000 was to a Jewish audience, the feeding of the 4000 is in a region that is majority non-Jewish. It is as if he is convinced that not only do the Gentiles deserve to lick up the scraps of bread under the table of Israel, but they deserve a place at the Table as well. And they deserve a space at the table because God doesn’t give scraps. God gives feasts! There is no need for anyone to stoop down below the feet of some privileged “children,” because God has enough bread for everyone in the whole world.
Perhaps Jesus was simply run down and in need of a break. We are clearly told in the scripture that he went to Tyre so he wouldn’t be noticed. After leaving Tyre, the text tells us he returned to Galilee by way of Sidon, which is north of Tyre! He went north to go south. So—perhaps he got the rest he needed there. In any case, in the very next chapter, the invigorated Jesus isn’t squabbling over the bread that should be on the children’s plate going to the dogs. He now is clear that he doesn’t need to take any bread away from the children because there is simply more bread to give! His mission and ministry expand from a cultural or regional frame of reference to a limitless frame of reference. He breaks bread again and feeds the multitudes—this time Gentiles and Jews alike.
When the Gospel went to the dogs, the Gospel expanded. Good news reached across the boundaries that we still recognize today. God broke out of the box called “Israel.” Or perhaps “Israel” simply grew that day. It grew out of the confines of a nation beset by mountains and deserts and ocean and emerged as a spiritual reality that is as broad and deep as a woman’s anguish for her suffering daughter. Mercy truly trumped judgment. And through our acts of mercy as the embodiment of Christ on earth—Israel still grows!

Monday, September 04, 2006

We are the church!

Sept. 3 Sermon, "Doers of the Word"

Sermon Texts:
James 1: 17-27
John 1: 1-14

The Word: This concept is a double edged sword in our traditon. The Word has several meanings—so how are we to know how to hear it when we hear it mentioned in Scripture? Sometimes when we refer to the “Word of God” we are referring to Scripture, as when I lift up the Bible after I read the scripture lesson and say, “This is the Word of God for the people of God.” Other times when we hear the “Word” of God, such as in the Gospel of John, there is a more mystical meaning that is intended.
The Word in some cases is the second part of the Trinity. It is in the beginning with God and it is God. Through it all things come into being. Here we are thrown back to the image of Creation, when God creates the world how? By speaking! The Word is literally the tangible, hearable, aspect of God that we are told comes to us in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. The Word is given life by the Breath—the Spirit sweeping over the watery womb of the Earth and in the incarnation of Jesus this same Spirit “covers” the watery womb of Mary. The Word cannot be articulated without the Breath, and in the same way, the One Who Speaks, the Word, and the Breath are intimately tied together in a Oneness we call the Trinity.
Today we begin looking at a new book in our scriptures. This book gives us Protestants headaches—so it is good that we do not shy away from it but instead struggle with it and grow from it. The book did not gain wide acceptance in the Western church until the 300s, and Martin Luther’s distaste for it was well known. (He called it “an epistle of straw.”) One problem with it is that it seemingly contradicts Paul’s theology of salvation best characterized in Galatians 2:16 “A person is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” James has a different take, saying in 2:24, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
The letter of James was attributed to the brother of Jesus who was the leader of the church in Jerusalem at the time of Paul’s evangelism of the Greek world.
By studying Acts and James and some of the epistles of Paul, it seems likely that James was a voice of support for Christian converts observing the laws and customs of the Jewish faith. Yet he was not as convinced as the believing Pharisees or “Judaizers” that the law should be followed to a T by converts from another culture. So, what in the mind of James is the Law? He calls it the royal law and says that it is implanted in the heart of every human. He re-iterates his brother’s teaching in his dedication to this law. The law that holds salvation is Love, and it is characterized by mercy.
James criticizes religion that is overly spiritualized and individualized. James calls “worthless” the religion of those who merely hear the word. Religion in his mind is not merely hearing, but allowing the change in oneself that results from hearing that word. James urged the church to not merely hear and debate and proclaim—religion according to James isn’t what we say or confess as a result of hearing that Saving Word—it is about “Doing” that Word.
Last Sunday, Taylor reminded me of a scene from “White Men Can’t Jump” where Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson are in the car and Woody turns on Jimi Hendrix and starts strumming his air guitar and scrunching up his face in imitation of the great guitar player. Wesley Snipes takes offense to Woody’s light treatment of Jimi Hendrix and says, “Man, you just listen to Jimi—you don’t HEAR him!” Snipes is saying to Harrelson what James is saying to the church. To truly hear the Word is to be changed by the Word. As Snipes enacts the subtlety, twists, and turns of Jimi’s music on the basketball court, he proves that he truly “hears” Jimi.
James lifts up community and challenges us to practice a faith of rubber meeting the road. He boldly proclaims that true religion is caring for the orphans and widows—which was one of the chief practices of the early church.
For James, then, “the faith of Jesus” means living before God in a manner shaped by the words of Jesus, and above all by his declaration that loving the neighbor as oneself is the “royal law.” Jesus never asked his hearers, “Do you agree with me?” or “Does this sound reasonable to most of you?” or “Get my drift?” Jesus wanted more than mere agreement. Most of the time they called Jesus “Teacher,” but he seems to be about more than mere passing on of knowledge. What Jesus said was, “Follow me.” He was after discipleship, not just simple intellectual agreement.
Perhaps that’s why we tend to turn the gospel into some kind of intellectual problem. Upon hearing scripture, we tend to ask, “Now, how could that have happened?” Or, “Now let me think about that.” But scripture doesn’t just want to be understood. It longs to be put into action. So maybe that’s why we step back, ponder, think, consider, reflect when the Bible longs for us to get moving, get into the act, perform the text rather than just speak or hear it.
William Willamon, the bishop of N. Alabama writes,
Years ago I remember discussing with a group of lay people what they looked for in a good sermon. “I like a sermon which helps me to think about things in a new way,” was a predominate response. I like a sermon which engages my mind, which spurs my thinking and reflection.
That sounded good to me. After all, I like to preach interesting, engaging, thoughtful sermons — when I can! Yet the more I thought about it, I wondered if their response was not quite right. There really is something about us which loves to think that all worship is about is sitting, listening, taking in.
Agreement and understanding are not the problem. The problem might be letting the ideas that we celebrate here in church sink into our bones and muscles and compel them to action. If we say we feel something in our heart, then shouldn’t we also feel it in our fingertips? What will we do with that which we have said, sung, and heard? We’ve been given Good News, a liberating law, a Golden Rule. We have heard it, we know the right words—Can we be “Doers of the Word?”
John Wesley called this action of “Doing the Word” in the world “holiness.” Holiness was not simply acting prim and proper, it was not living with a look on your face like you’ve just sucked a dill pickle. Piety has become a negative word in our everyday language. “Oh, look at that man, acting so pious!” we say with distaste on our teeth. John Wesley knew piety as a positive attribute. It meant living a sincere life, living as authentically as we can, it meant living a life in accordance with the Good news that we have been given. It meant giving to others, it meant reaching out to those in need. It meant observing the sacraments and being nurtured by them, it meant speaking with love and kindness and gentleness and forgiveness. People of faith ruined our idea of piety when they started oppressing others with it. John Wesley knew it as a great freedom. And James knew it that way as well.
If we don’t practice what we preach, if we don’t live the word in our daily lives, and instead we simply hear the good news and nod our heads, we are like people who see themselves in a mirror and then upon turning away from the mirror forgetting what we look like. We don’t want to live this kind of forgetful life do we? We have an identity! The Word is implanted in our hearts, says James. We came into being through this Word of God! We are made in that image! God birthed us through this Word is how James proclaims it. Now—why would we want to do anything else but live in the acknowledgement of that Creative Word.
We are asked not only to put the ideals and ethics we find in Scripture, in the Law, into practice, we are asked to live as beings who know their Creator. Living in this understanding involves responding to people in need—because they too are birthed by that Word—they are the same as we are. It involves giving—because it is a reflection of the perfect gifts from the “Father of Lights,” according to James. Our God is a Giver of Gifts, a Creator of Possibilities, and if we want to live as people molded by the Word of this Giver who Created us, we should give with the same generosity.
There is a well known saying that keeps us preachers in check: “I’d rather see a good sermon than hear a good sermon.”
Willamon ended his meditation on this scripture with an account of how he responded to the inevitable compliments of his sermon:
“Pastor, that was a wonderful sermon,” said the parishioner at the door after the service. “That remains to be seen,” said the preacher.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Live BIG begnis in September

Interested in our new Sunday School program for kids and teens? Click the icon to watch a video on Windows Media Player>