Sunday, May 29, 2011

Memorial Day Sermon

Sermon texts:
Psalm 66: 8-20
John 16: 20-22, 33
1 Peter 3: 13-22

It may have been a memorial day weekend when my whole mother’s side of the family visited the Mud Island in Memphis.  They have a miniture replica of the Mississippi river made from concrete that runs the length of an island that river pirates and outlaws used to meet on for knife fights to the death or other nefarious behavior. 

The hanging monorail train that shuttles you to the island from Memphis is featured in the Tom Cruise movie “The Firm,” and while you are there, you can also see the famous Memphis Belle B-17 Flying fortress.  This is the same model airplane that my grandfather flew in during WWII, and though he’d never really spoken much about his service (and even at 10 or 11 I could kind of read his discomfort when speaking about the experience that left his arm disfigured and shorter than the other), it was by that plane like that one that he had no doubt suffered for many hours in as he held his arm in place after nearly having it shot off, that I asked him to tell me more about his service.

There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless. 15 So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.

What can we, who benefit from the good that the veterans have suffered for, do for them?  Honor and memory. 
They deserve that, don’t they.  That’s what marks the difference between the righteous and the wicked.  We don’t necessarily get what we deserve out of life or death.  Sometimes the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer, but Peter reminds the newly baptized that though their baptism does not function as some kind of protective shield against strife and difficulties, it does make us part of a community who bears all things as one body. 

Think about your life and what you have brought to the world at large.  What will be those activities that have such an impact that they will be remembered when you are gone?  Will people some day gather at my funeral and reminisce about how much I enjoyed coming up with witty comments for other people’s facebook page?  “Man, that Nathan sure could give some snappy comments!”   No—what endures is a person’s contribution to things that are larger than oneself. 

Suffering for the faith.  John Wesley one of his co-workers had been thrown off a bridge to his death when they evangelized the rough mill towns of SW England. 

It seems that this man’s life was full of suffering, and yet he did something that will be forever memorialized.  He contributed in a positive way to an event that held tragedy. 

Interesting idea that you used to suffer quite a bit of persecution just for being a Methodist.  Perhaps when we aren’t suffering for our faith we end up suffering in our faith.  We atrophy.  Our spiritual muscles get weak.  Some of the early church desert fathers and mothers knew this about faith life, so while theologians bickered about the ins and outs of who God was and who Jesus was, they went out to the desert to subject themselves to the elements and desolation in an attempt to mimic Christ’s example.   

This Thursday is Ascension Day.  40 days after Easter Sunday, when some Christians mark the occasion when Jesus ascends into heaven and leaves his disciples with the promise of the Spirit’s power to guide them, as we heard about today. 

The Ascension means that Christ is not only risen, but that he reigns.  As he tells his disciples in the passage from John that we heard today, even when we suffer for being his disciples, we can  know that In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Monday, May 16, 2011

Centennial Sunday School Round UP!

Has it been a while since you've been to Sunday School?  Have you ever invited a friend to come to Sunday School with you?  Next Sunday is the time!

  Morris FUMC originated in the heyday of Sunday School, so we've been doing it for 100 years now!  Let's show our support for our Sunday School program by being here to meet under the trees in the front of the church at 9:45 May 22nd for a Centennial Celebration of Sunday School.  We'll have food and fun and stories and perhaps a little "living history."  There will be rides in an antique Model-T mini-car for the kids (the first Model Ts had just hit the production lines when our church was being formed!), and if you want to dress in "period clothing," that will be fun too!  We'll start the morning with some words form Pastor Mattox and anyone else who'd like to recollect on their memories of how Sunday school has evolved over our 100 year span.  Then we'll have some time for eating and lessons under the trees (which will serve as our version of the "bursh arbor" unless someone gets a wild hare and builds one this week!  Some folks have even talked about riding horse and wagons (or just horses) to the Centennial celebration.  The sky's the limit!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Graduation Sermon: Unknown Unknowns

Isaiah 40: 27-31
1 Corinthians 13: 9-13

This scripture always makes me think of that song by Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood’s band, Faces. You remember it?

I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger. (Kinda a tongue twister)

Seeing Kelsie on her way to graduation makes me think of the end of my high school experience and the same song.

“Put away childish ways” Difference between childlike faith and being childish

But you know what—when I was younger, I knew more than I do now, or at least I thought I did. I knew it all, as most of us do at that age. That’s all right. It’s part of wisdom to learn that we have something to learn. Socrates said "I am only wise insofar as what I don't know, I don't think I know."

Donald Rumsfeld NATO press conference in 2002.
“Now what is the message there? The message is that there are known "knowns." There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don't know. So when we do the best we can and we pull all this information together, and we then say well that's basically what we see as the situation, that is really only the known knowns and the known unknowns. And each year, we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns.”

After five years in Morris, I still have some known unknowns. Why is it called a 5th wheel trailor? Are we really called “Morrisites?” and does that not sound too much like Parisites? I wonder what folks from OKC are called? Or Beggs? Or Mounds? Or Liberty? Or Liberty Mounds? But, I’m sure there are some unknown unknowns that I am missing too.

In our scriptures today, we hear about “knowing only in part.” Paul, as someone who is wise, understands this. Now we can only know in part, as though through a darkened mirror.

WE may think that sounds like an odd metaphor, since mirrors are basically true reflections, but that’s not how it was in Paul’s day. Corinth made a lot of mirrors, and generally, the best ones were polished brass. They didn’t give a clear reflection like they do today. There was discoloration, blemishes, etc.

Paul basically says that right now our place in the world and God’s relationship to everything that happens is a “known unknown.” We realize that we don’t see clearly. At least, this is the conclusion we arrive at when we are wise. The more you know, the more you realize how much we don’t know.

But, while knowledge can only take us so far, love can take us the distance.

The Corinthians were kind of puffed up about their knowledge. The “Known knowns” had become a dividing line between people in that community, and Paul saw what danger that held, so he talked about “putting away his childish ways” and growing up into the understanding that God’s ways will blow our minds, but not our hearts. Our minds cannot contain God, but our Hearts are where God chooses to live.

Even with how great our knowledge and understanding has become, it is still the shallow end compared to what is unknown. Prophecies will cease, tongues will fall silent, and knowledge will come to an end. But Love never fails. It will take you through. It is the boat that carries us over the expansive Wisdom of God and bring us to that place and time when “we shall know, even as we have been fully known.”

Depth of God’s love is an unknown unknown. Here’s what we can know, according to Isaiah. What we can know is that we should hope in God’s faithfulness. Isaiah says those who have that hope “renew their strength and will soar on wings like eagles.”

Before this passage that we heard this morning, Isaiah is going over a litany of things that “put us in our place” as human beings in relation to God. God is like the wind that blows over the grass and fields. We are like the grass and our faithfulness is like the flowers. Grass and flowers will wither away, but the wind remains. Vs. 15 and 17 say “Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket;
they are regarded as dust on the scales;… Before him all the nations are as nothing;
they are regarded by him as worthless
and less than nothing.”

Hmmm…. Think about that next time someone says “God bless America, eh?” Perhaps we should be saying “America bless God” instead!

And while the nations are regarded as dust on the scales, Isaiah tells us that God spreads out the heavens and the mountains and the oceans.

“He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in.”

So, young grasshopper, what can we do in the face of such a magnificent and overpowering God? Perhaps you sometimes feel this sense of overwhelming when you think about your future and all the stuff that has to be done, Kelsie, or any graduates. I find myself feeling overwhelmed with the prospects of the future, for sure! It hits me like a spear in the gut every time I look around the house and know it needs to be packed up soon!

This is how life is—but God gives us the gift of Hope. Hope renews our strength. Hope isn’t Pollyanna optimism. Hope renews our strength. It is the conviction in things unseen. “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.” Vaclav Havel
“Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead, or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, work for it, and fight for it.” - Barack Obama

And Paul says that Love is the greatest of all. If you Love God, how do you let God know? You know the answer to that question. And that answer will always carry you through.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Easter 3 Sermon: The Road

Sermon Texts:
2 Timothy 1: 3-7
Luke 24: 13-35

Speaking of Mothers--  I was reminded of my mother today with today’s text in the lectionary.  When I was a boy and would get sick, my mother would use this tray, the “Jesus tray” to bring me my medicine.  If there were ever times when she would forget to bring the medicine on the Jesus tray, then I would ask for it: “Bring it on the Jesus tray, mommy.” 

There was something about this image of the road to Emmaus that always caught my imagination.  I love the grand trees, how Jesus is turned to one of the disciples and gesturing up with his hand, with the other disciple in rapt attention. There was just something about Jesus walking down the road with his disciples that held a totem like power for me, I guess. 

A few years ago, I saw this image was available in a nice frame from Cokesbury, and so I bought it to place next to the exit door as a reminder to those of us who gather at the church, that on the road of life, on our journey throughout the week, we should keep our eyes open for an encounter with the Risen Christ. 

From the tray, I always wondered how his disciples didn’t know it was him all that time—I mean, he looks like Jesus is supposed to look, right?  Isn’t it strange how in all of the resurrection accounts, Jesus’ disciples mistake him for someone else or just plain don’t recognize him at all? 

Here’s a profound truth of the resurrection that every Gospel writer captures—Jesus is experienced by a prolonged recognition.  What if Mary had seen who she thought was the gardener, and assumed her first glance hadn’t fooled her, and she just rushed crying away.  But instead she engaged the stranger, and it turned out not to be a stranger at all!

What if the two disciples on their way to Emmaus had just accepted the stranger’s obvious “non-verbal clues” that he was going to head on down the road, and let him go—but instead they pressed him to stay, to accept their hospitality—and when they sat down to eat with him, they recognized him for who he was. 

It takes a little more from us than just a casual, passive approach to the people we meet on the road of life in order to see the Risen Christ.  IT takes some engagement with the world around you—it takes some willingness to put yourself on the line and open your doors to people.  That’s what the resurrection accounts say.

I read this book by Cormac McCarthy last year called “The Road.”  He’s a fantastic author, the author of “No Country for Old Men,” and the book won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but let me tell you something, that book is depressing. 

It’s set in the future after a nuclear holocaust, and a father and son are trying to get to a warmer climate, and are traveling through a burnt out nation where the ethos of “every man for himself” has become the only law. 

At every turn, some glimmer of hope turns into a tragic mistake, and every person who seems possibly able to offer a helping hand turns out to have evil intentions.  It gets so seemingly hopeless, that you begin to wonder as the number of pages left grow fewer and fewer if the author is going to lead you out of shadows.  When a final ray of hope does finally become apparent, it is not without consequence, but it still leaves you feeling tremendously grateful for some small bit of warmth. 

In the story from Luke, we hear the two disciples walking down the road with heavy hearts.  They are sullen and sorrowful about the death of Jesus.  All their hope has been crushed.  And then this stranger begins to instruct them in the ways of hope.

And when he appears to them plainly in the breaking of the bread, he vanishes from their sight.  You see, with the hope that he instills, it is no longer necessary that he remain with them any longer.  The hope instilled is the point.  That small bit of warmth at the end of the Road redeems the whole story, it makes all the pain and suffering along the way tolerable. 

Along “The Road” in the novel, the man and the son reassure themselves that “they are some of the good guys” and they “carry the fire inside them.”  They are words that could be spoken by Jesus to the two disciples.  Words that Luke will later illustrate in the Pentecost story, when the flames of the Spirit are manifest over the heads of the believers. 

Yes, though the stark realities of the road may sometimes seem overwhelming, we come here to be reminded that there is one who walks with us who gives us the “fire inside us.”  He comes to us in many a guise.  And we must remember to respond to others with the dignity, kindness, and love that he instructed us to show to others.  When and if that happens, we might someday find ourselves walking with the living Christ and having our eyes opened to that mysterious and life changing reality.  May it be so! 

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Easter 2 sermon: I Wanna See!

Texts: 1 Peter and John
I think one of the first phrases of many younger siblings is “I wanna see!” It certainly was one of Julianna’s first phrases. We’d be looking at something on the computer on the counter, and we’d laugh about it, and Wesley would jump out of his chair, “I wanna see!” Julianna would come parroting him “I wan see!” 

It’s that standing up on your tiptoes that goes along with that prhase, isn’t it. I wanna see, I wanna see. It communicates a real zest for life, doesn’t it. There’s an engagement with the world. After all, someone who’s just bored with it all doesn’t stand up and say “I wanna see!” Someone who thinks they’ve seen it all doesn’t stand up and say “I wanna see.” 

I think you could say that the phrase “I wanna see” is childlike faith in a nutshell, isn’t it? It takes some humility to say, which children have no problem with. It takes some interest and some earnestness to say, once again not a problem with children. And it takes some faith and hope to say. After all, to say it with any conviction, it takes the hope that there’s actually something worth seeing. 

I can really picture Thomas saying “I wanna see!” He’s gone from the first (actually the second), considering Christ’s appearance to Mary was the first) encounter with the disciples. They’re all there together in the Upper room, says John, and here comes Jesus walking through walls but substantial in flesh and blood. Kinda mysterious. Kinda out there! 

And then John informs us that actually Thomas was missing from the “all of them,” and that when told the story about a risen Christ walking through walls and breathing on them, he says “I wanna see!” 

He’s kind of the younger sibling in this regard, isn’t he. He was left out (as younger siblings often are) of the first time, so he pines for his own encounter. 

He’s got a little bit of a chip on his shoulder about it too, doesn’t it sound like that? He says, unless this and that and the other, then I’m just not going to believe your little “walking through walls” story. 

And you know what—Jesus responds! Everyone seems to harp on the fact that Jesus comes and seemingly “sets Thomas straight” by saying “you believe now since you have seen, well—blessed are those who believe without seeing. I don’t read it that way. 

Remember, Thomas isn’t alone in this regard. According to the story we heard last week, it was only the beloved disciple who believes without seeing. All the rest of the disciples have a chance to see the Risen Christ a week before in the first part of our reading today. Thomas isn’t alone in that. 

Remember, Jesus comes to Thomas and not only shows him his wounds, but tells him to place his fingers in them. It’s as if Jesus is saying—what you ask for I will give you and more. Don’t just look—touch too! Remember, Jesus says he comes to bring life and bring it abundantly. He wants Thomas to have enough of a “dose” of this resurrection to carry him through the rest of his life, because that’s what he’s going to need. 

It’s not like Jesus comes in a disembodied voice and says “shame on you for not believing your brothers, Thomas.” Jesus comes into his presence. I like the icon that we have on the front of our bulletin today because it has Jesus embracing Thomas. 

Jesus embraces our needs. He embraces us even and perhaps even because we have doubts. I’ve always told people that I counsel who express doubts to me that I’m always overjoyed when someone tells me they have doubts, because that means they have been thinking hard about what is contained in our faith. It has been occupying more of their mindset than just a casual glance. 

Perhaps it’s not an accident that we almost always hear this text on the Sunday AFTER Easter, when it is usually the foundational people of the church who are in attendance. 

You may get excited when we have 150 people in church, as we did last week—but you know what—numbers don’t translate into in-depth faith. You know how much was placed in the offering plate last week? $900! 

I would guess that every person in here has had their doubts about some aspect of our faith. And you know what—that’s a good thing! Having doubts means your faith occupies more than just some emotional corner of your heart—it occupies your mind too! It occupies your stomach when you see the hypocrisy too often found in the church. I ran across a quote the other day that has been occupying my mind for the past week. “Truth isn’t always beauty; but the hunger for it is.” 

The truth of the resurrection is also the truth of the ugly crucifixion. It is not necessarily beautiful. It is hard and heartbreaking. The truth is that some of our Easter friends who were here last week have no interest in a life of faith. But—the hunger for truth is what you see in the eyes of Thomas. It’s what you see in the eyes of these young men who professed their faith today. It’s what you see in a less than average crowd of people here to worship on “Low Sunday” which is what the week after Easter is known as. And that is beauty.